US designates Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a terrorist group
Iran condemns the decision as illegal
Washington/Dubai — US President Donald Trump on Monday branded Iran's elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organisation, an unprecedented step that raises the spectre of retaliation from Tehran in an increasingly tense Middle East.
It is the first time the US has formally designated another country's military a terrorist group.
"The Islamic Revolutionary Guard is the Iranian government’s primary means of directing and implementing its global terrorist campaign," Trump said in a statement.
Iran condemned the decision as an illegal act prompted by Tehran's regional influence and "success in fighting against Islamic State", according to state television.
Tensions between the two countries have grown since Trump pulled the US out of a 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran last May and reimposed sanctions that had crippled Iran's economy.
Trump said the accord did not address Iran's ballistic missile activity or what he saw as its malign influence in the region.
Set up after the 1979 Islamic Revolution with the mission of protecting the Shiite clerical ruling system, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard is Iran's most powerful security organisation and has a huge influence in its political system, controlling large swathes of the economy and the armed forces.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard's involvement in Iran's banking and shipping industries could complicate matters with US allies, including the European Union, which is setting up a new mechanism to facilitate payments for Iranian exports. It was not immediately clear how Monday's move would impact Europe's trade ties with Iran.
Those who do business with Iran's military could now receive up to 20 years in prison and be barred from entering or doing business in the US.
The action on Monday "makes crystal clear the risks of conducting business with, or providing support to, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard", Trump said. "If you are doing business with them, you will be bankrolling terrorism."
After reports of the planned US designation emerged on Friday, Iranian lawmakers warned Tehran will take reciprocal action.
Critics have warned the US action could open US military and intelligence officials to similar moves by unfriendly governments.
The US has already blacklisted dozens of entities and people for affiliations with the Revolutionary Guard, but not the organisation as a whole.
Secretary of state Mike Pompeo, a strident critic of Iran, has pushed for the change in US policy as part of the Trump administration's tough posture towards Tehran.
The US action against the entire Revolutionary Guard had been debated in the Trump administration for months as Washington sought additional ways to pressure Iran and curtail its growing influence in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
"This designation is a direct response to an outlaw regime and should surprise no one," Pompeo said. The designation comes into effect next Monday.
If you are doing business with them, you will be bankrolling terrorism.
In 2017, Revolutionary Guard commander Mohammad Ali Jafari warned that if Trump went ahead with labelling the group as terrorist "then the Revolutionary Guard will consider the American army to be like Islamic State all around the world".
Such threats are particularly ominous for US forces in places such as Iraq, where Iran-aligned Shiite militia are located in close proximity to US troops.
The state department said on Monday that the Guards have been engaged in terrorist activity since the group's inception, including the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 Americans, and a foiled plan to attack the Saudi ambassador to the US on US soil. It cited what it said were Revolutionary Guard terrorist plans that had been uncovered in Europe and Africa.
Some critics of the Trump administration's move believe it was timed ahead of the Israeli election on Tuesday.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked Trump for taking the action in a Twitter post. Iran and Israel are increasingly at odds with each other, particularly in Syria where the Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force has helped President Bashar al-Assad gain the upper hand in a civil war.
After reports of the designation emerged late on Friday, Iranian lawmakers warned Tehran will take reciprocal action.
The Revolutionary Guard is in charge of Iran's ballistic missiles and nuclear programmes. Tehran has warned that it has missiles with a range of up to 2,000km, putting Israel and US military bases in the region within reach.
The military group's economic footprint grew under Iranian former president and ex-Guard Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from 2005. Soon after the US, EU and the UN imposed sanctions on Iran’s oil and finance sectors in 2012, the Revolutionary Guard took up the businesses of the European oil firms that were been forced to leave.
Iran’s clerical rulers rewarded the group for sanctions-busting as well as suppressing dissent at home and helping Tehran’s allies abroad — notably Syria's Bashar al-Assad.
However, in recent years much of the Revolutionary Guard's business has been conducted through front companies, many of them not even formally owned by the Iranian force, but by people and firms linked to it.
Previous administrations have considered expanding the designation to the entire group, but decided that the risk to US forces overseas was too great, according to former US officials.
The Pentagon declined to discuss what the US military was doing to protect its troops from any retaliation by the Revolutionary Guard or Iran-aligned militia in places such as Iraq. US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, assured that the US military was taking all necessary steps and had alerted US military commanders prior to the announcement.
The announcement comes ahead of a May 2 deadline by the US on whether or not to extend oil waivers to eight importers of Iranian oil.
Reducing the number of waivers will limit oil exports from Iran, the fourth-largest producer in Opec, but the US is unlikely to meet an earlier target of driving Iranian oil exports to zero.