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1. Terrorism, sanctions and the future of the nuclear deal
U.S. President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett held their fourth phone conversation on Sunday afternoon. According to a statement from Bennett’s office, the Israeli prime minister said: “I am sure that President Biden, who is a true friend of Israel and cares about its security, will not remove the Revolutionary Guards from the [State Department’s] list of [Foreign] Terrorist Organizations.” The White House readout, on the other hand, made no mention of this issue.
How did the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (commonly referred to by its acronym, IRGC) become a pivotal issue in U.S.-Israel relations?
First, a word about the IRGC.
In short, the Revolutionary Guard is an Iranian military force that was originally set up in order to defend the Islamic revolution and its values from enemies outside and inside Iran. Over the years, the IRGC grew into a huge military, economic and political machine, playing a major role in expanding Iran’s reach to neighboring countries, supporting terror organizations, firing missiles and harassing vessels in the Persian Gulf.
The United States, Israel and Gulf countries surrounding Iran have long identified the Revolutionary Guard as the main vehicle carrying out Tehran’s aggressive regional approach. In 2019, the United States designated the IRGC a foreign terrorist organization, a designation that entails a list of sanctions on the group and limitations on any international entity wishing to engage or do business with the Revolutionary Guard.
Which brings us to the current negotiations aimed at restoring the 2015 nuclear deal. These talks, which have gone on for months in Vienna, have essentially concluded, with both sides agreeing on the key steps that Iran and the United States need to take in order to resurrect the nuclear deal.
But then Iran threw a monkey wrench into the negotiations—or at least that is how the U.S. and its allies tell the story—and added a last-minute demand: removing the IRGC from the list of foreign terrorist organizations.
As of now, this is the only issue blocking the return to the nuclear deal with Iran, and the key to resolving it is solely in the hands of President Biden. The stakes are enormous: Agreeing to the Iranian request to delist the Revolutionary Guard would enable the return to the nuclear deal, a key foreign policy goal of the Biden administration. But—and this is something Israel, the Gulf states, many Republicans, and some Democrats have been warning about—it would be seen as no less than bowing down to one of the most dangerous sponsors of terror in the world.
Biden is expected to make a final public decision very soon. But meanwhile, leaks from the administration in recent weeks have made it clear that the president has made up his mind: He will refuse to remove Iran’s Revolutionary Guard from the foreign terror list.
2. Is the IRGC a terror organization?
Of course it is.
Throughout the years, the Revolutionary Guard has supported, according to findings of the U.S. government, several terror organizations operating in the region, most noticeably Hezbollah, which serves as an Iranian arm in Lebanon. It also backs Hamas and groups engaged in terrorism in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
So why did consecutive U.S. administrations refrain from listing the Revolutionary Guard as a terror organization?
First, because the IRGC is a bit different. A look at the current list of terror organizations reveals many well-known names, from Al-Qaeda and ISIS to Israel’s Kahane Chai, a group made up of followers of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane. But most are groups operating independently from the state they are located in. The Revolutionary Guard, on the other hand, is an official arm of the Iranian state.
But more important is the fact that until Donald Trump, most American leaders felt that listing the IRGC as a foreign terror group would be counterproductive: It would not significantly limit the group’s hostile actions, and at the same time, it would make reaching understandings with Iran even more difficult.
3. Does it matter?
There are a few schools of thought here.
Some say that delisting the IRGC will have very little real-world impact on the group.
At the moment, members of the IRGC are banned from entering the United States, and anyone doing business knowingly with a foreign terrorist group could face criminal charges. It is safe to bet, however, that no members of the Revolutionary Guard have plans of visiting New York in the near future, and, furthermore, with so many other sanctions against Iran and the IRGC still in place, it’s unlikely that international businesses will rush to sign contracts with companies related to the group.
However, many Israeli and American officials and experts disagree. They claim that delisting the IRGC would signal to the world that the group is somehow kosher and that it’s okay to go ahead and do business with its affiliates. They also note that removing the group from the terror list would undermine the entire global effort to curb terrorism, proving that you don’t have to stop being a terrorist in order to get off of America’s terror list.
4. What role did Israel play in convincing Biden not to delist the IRGC?
Israel deserves some credit in persuading the Biden administration not to drop Iran’s Revolutionary Guard from the foreign terrorist list. But it’s not only about Israel’s close ties to the administration or about the influential pro-Israel lobby.
A lot has to do with the fact that Israel was the first to identify the issue of delisting the IRGC as the remaining sticking point in the Vienna negotiations, and in sounding the alarm bells over it.
From a public diplomacy standpoint, Israel struck gold.
Instead of focusing its antinuclear deal campaign on technical details and on the timelines of the nuclear accord, Israel was able to speak out on an issue that’s relevant to everyone: terrorism and the need to punish—or at least not to reward—those involved in terrorism.
What followed was a wave of calls to keep the designation of the IRGC as a terror group. The first that came on board were the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia, and then, during the March 27 Negev Summit, a joint front of foreign ministers from Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Egypt conveyed a direct message to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who participated in the summit, making clear they are all united in opposing any delisting of the IRGC.
In addition, an onslaught of resistance from the ranks of Congressional Republicans and several centrist Democrats helped drive home the message that any action regarding Iran’s Revolutionary Guard would come with a heavy political price tag.
5. Is there a middle road?
The debate is not over yet, at least not formally. And as long as the Vienna process remains open, there is still a chance for compromise.
It is possible, at least theoretically, that Iran takes “no” for an answer and agrees to return to the nuclear deal without having the IRGC removed from the terror list. This is extremely unlikely, given Iran’s position and statements thus far.
One compromise idea that was floated, but did not gain traction, proposed delisting the IRGC while keeping its most dangerous branch, the Quds Force, on the list, because of its direct involvement in overseas terrorist activity.
Another option would be to condition delisting of the IRGC on the group’s commitment to change its ways and refrain from supporting terrorism. This idea was shot down early in the process.
Which leaves only one possible way to untangle this situation: a U.S. promise to discuss the status of the IRGC separately and not in connection to the nuclear deal. This would require both sides to give up some ground: The United States would have to acknowledge that the Revolutionary Guard’s terror designation is negotiable, and Iran would have to agree to untether the IRGC question from the nuclear deal.