Understanding the Powerful IRGC

The Trump administration’s recent designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a “foreign terrorist organization” is part of a multifaceted strategy to contain Tehran’s growing power in the Middle East. Established in 1979 to protect the Islamic regime from domestic threats, the IRGC has grown into an elite force that wields vast military, economic, and political influence in Iran and across the region.

Sworn to Israel’s destruction, it is Iran’s primary instrument for exporting the ideology of the Islamic Revolution worldwide. In 1989, the IRGC established the Quds Force, a special-forces unit that conducts covert missions outside Iran and provides training, funding, and weapons to terrorist groups in many countries, including Hezbollah in Lebanon; Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip and West Bank; Houthi insurgents in Yemen; and Shia militias in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.

Iran’s many foreign interventions have strengthened the so-called axis of resistance, an Iranian-led, anti-Israel alliance. In Lebanon, for instance, the IRGC has turned Hezbollah into the world’s most heavily armed non-state actor, with vast quantities of missiles and rockets arrayed against Israel. In Syria, the IRGC works to establish a permanent military presence aimed at “liberating” the Golan Heights from Israeli control.

“The ultimate goal is, in the case of another war, to make Syria a new front between Israel, Hezbollah, and Iran,” said Iran analyst Amir Toumaj. “They are making that not just a goal, but a reality.”

Iran and its allies are also working to establish a land corridor from Iran to the Mediterranean—through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon—to transport weapons to Hezbollah. Since 2017, Israel has launched more than 200 attacks against Iranian targets in Syria, according to Israeli Intelligence Minister Israel Katz. The IRGC’s covert nature, however, makes it difficult to determine how many and which type of weapons have slipped through.

In Yemen, Iran wants to establish a permanent presence on Saudi Arabia’s southern border and set up naval bases along the Red Sea. “If the Iran-backed Shia rebels gain control of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, Iran can attain a foothold in this sensitive region giving access to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, a cause of concern not only for its sworn rivals Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Gulf states, but also for Israel and European countries along the Mediterranean,” said retired Israel Defense Forces Lt. Col. Michael Segall.

According to Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Yemen is key to Iran’s strategy of ejecting Israel from so-called Palestinian territories. Iranian Gen. Kioumars Heydari recently said Iran’s plans go far beyond “freeing Palestine.” The IRGC “will flatten Tel Aviv,” he said, adding that at the entrance to every Iranian military base “we have a sign counting down the days to Israel’s demise.”

According to Nathan Sales, the U.S. State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism, designating the IRGC as a terrorist group will “make it radioactive.” For many years IRGC entities were accused of supporting terrorism in a general sense, he said; but “now Iran stands accused of directly engaging in terrorism.” This fact, according to Sales, removes Iran’s “plausible deniability—it cannot hide behind Hezbollah or Palestinian Islamic Jihad anymore.”

The terrorist designation will enable criminal prosecution of “anyone knowingly providing support” to any entities linked to the IRGC, which controls nearly 40 percent of Iran’s economy. This crime carries prison sentences of up to 20 years. “The IRGC is the Iranian government’s primary means of directing and implementing its global terrorist campaign,” a White House statement said. “If you are doing business with the IRGC, you will be bankrolling terrorism.”

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