War Stories

Trump Is Begging for a Fight With Iran

The administration’s latest move seems designed to provoke a confrontation.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Donald Trump.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran on Feb. 8. President Donald Trump in Las Vegas on Saturday. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Iran’s Religious Leader Press Office/Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images and Ethan Miller/Getty Images.

President Donald Trump’s designation of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps as a “foreign terrorist organization” is likely to spark more violence in the region—and may be intended to do so.

In one sense, the move—the latest escalation in Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against the Islamic republic—will have only modest impact. The military unit (often abbreviated as the IRGC) was already sanctioned by the Treasury Department, in 2017, for its material support of terrorist groups, such as Hamas and Hezbollah. The Iranian government as a whole has been on the State Department’s list of “state sponsors of terrorism,” which carries economic penalties, since 1984. (There are, today, only three other states on the list: Sudan, Syria, and North Korea.)

The new designation, which was announced Monday and will take effect April 15, steps up the pressure in two ways: It imposes criminal penalties on anyone who knowingly does business with the IRGC (which controls about 20 percent of Iran’s economy), and it bars members of the IRGC and its affiliates—who number roughly 11 million—from travel to the United States.

But the move also crosses a boldly drawn line. It marks the first time the United States has designated a branch of a foreign government’s military as a terrorist organization. The IRGC is many things: a local economic powerhouse, a means of assisting and training Iranian allies and militias in the region; but it is also a praetorian guard and special forces unit of the Iranian military.

In the bureaucratic debates leading up to Monday’s announcement, Trump’s move was reportedly opposed by Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and by senior civilian officials in the Pentagon, for two reasons: It could harm American allies, and it could endanger American troops.

For some allies, the decision could have an immediate impact. Although the IRGC supports militias such as Hamas and Hezbollah, it also helps the Shiite-led government in Iraq fight off Sunni militias such as al-Qaida and ISIS. To designate the IRGC as a terrorist organization would make Iraq—an ally of the United States—a state sponsor of terrorism.

For the United States and many other countries, the longer-term potential for blowback is considerable. Many of the world’s special forces, air forces, and intelligence series—including those of the United States and its allies—commit acts that kill or terrorize civilians, sometimes deliberately. Trump’s move sets a precedent by which the victims of those acts, or their allies, might declare the attackers to be terrorist organizations.

In fact, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council has already responded by labeling U.S. Central Command—which controls all U.S. military operations in the Middle East and Central Asia—a terrorist organization. Iran has no way to impose economic sanctions on the United States, but its militias and their allies might now regard any of the command’s 200,000 personnel as legitimate targets in an attack—just as the U.S. military does for members of organizations that American leaders have labeled “terrorists.”

Presumably Trump was briefed on the severe risks, and the modest benefits, of his decision. So why did he go ahead and make it anyway? There were, I suspect, three converging motives.

First, and perhaps above all, Trump did it to help his friend, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, win his tight reelection contest this week. The timing was too close to be mere coincidence. Netanyahu, in fact, sent Trump a letter thanking him for the decision. Interestingly, according to the New York Times, in the Hebrew version of the letter—which Netanyahu released to the public—he thanked Trump “for accepting another important request of mine.” In the English version, this passage was omitted. Was Netanyahu falsely taking credit for the decision to boost his chances of reelection? Or was the idea truly his, and by deleting the reference, was he shielding Trump from being seen, by American voters, as his puppet?

Second, ever since taking office, Trump has been hellbent on hurting the Iranian government—one of vanishingly few authoritarian regimes whose leaders he doesn’t like—in as many ways as he can, and this is but the latest move in that campaign.

Third, it is worth noting who was advocating this move inside the administration—Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton. Pompeo has spoken many times about encouraging the Iranian people to rise up against their oppressive leaders. Bolton, when he was a think-tank neocon and a Fox News pundit, spoke out, even more frequently and avidly, for a policy of regime change in Iran.

Bolton may be hoping that Trump’s designation will provoke the IRGC to attack American service members in the region—because that would provide an opening to attack Iran.

Whatever one makes of the Iranian government or the IRGC, it is hard to see how this stratagem—Trump’s designation or Bolton’s exploitation of its consequences—leads to a good place. If the regime in Tehran were somehow toppled, it is very unlikely that Western-leaning democrats would rise up to take their place—especially if the ouster was traced to Americans. The successors would much more likely be the commanders of the IRGC. And if Trump’s designation managed in the meantime to weaken the IRGC, the new leaders would likely be the shrewder—and perhaps even more militant—officers from within its ranks. Either that, or anarchy would erupt. And, in a country twice as populous and three times as large as Iraq, with a history of mistrusting Western intruders, the chance is nil that U.S. interests will come out ahead in the ensuing struggle for power and resources.