Talks to revive the nuclear deal with Iran recently hit the one-year mark. Reports suggest that the parties are close to an agreement — a key time when breakthroughs can happen but also when talks can fall apart. At this critical moment, Iran demanded that Washington remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from its Foreign Terrorist Organization list. The demand has prompted debate within the Washington foreign policy community.
Former US President Donald Trump designated the IRGC as an FTO in 2019, the first time that a state-run entity had been added to a list that was designed for nonstate actors. Now, that designation is a potential point of leverage and a potential stumbling block in returning to the deal that Trump tried to sink.
The debate in Washington over removing the IRGC from the FTO list largely breaks down along the lines of supporters and opponents of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. JCPOA supporters see a deal as crucial to constraining Iran’s nuclear program, and many believe that the FTO list is not worth risking a nuclear-armed Iran. JCPOA opponents do not believe that saving the deal is worth removing the IRGC from the FTO list. Partisanship also informs the debate; however, among knowledgeable experts, the debate cuts across some partisan lines with more nuanced discussion.
Many JCPOA supporters — primarily Democrats and centrists — argue that Biden should seriously consider removing the IRGC from the FTO list to reach a deal. Their starting point is that the JCPOA is a valuable agreement that is worth some compromises. Their second main point is that the FTO designation for the IRGC has limited or no practical value. They note that the IRGC’s malign actions have increased since 2019, suggesting that designating it as an FTO did nothing to change its behavior. They see the FTO as primarily or entirely symbolic. Furthermore, the FTO already has a political history that undermines its role as a credible list of terrorist organizations.
A key part of the argument in favor of delisting the IRGC revolves around the fact that the US has many other sanctions against the IRGC. Understanding US sanctions law requires specific expertise, and commentators on both sides of the FTO issue often misunderstand or oversimplify sanctions. However, sanctions experts on both sides of the debate note that the IRGC is listed under multiple other US sanctions and that the FTO designation did very little to materially constrain or punish it.
Foreign policy commentators who oppose removing the IRGC from the FTO include centrists, Republicans and former Trump administration officials; most, but not all, also oppose the JCPOA. Some of their arguments will have little influence with the Biden administration.
Removing the IRGC from the list could damage US relations with partners in the region, primarily Israel and the Gulf states.
Kerry Boyd Anderson
Those who oppose the JCPOA tend to oppose any compromise with Iran. Some opponents have expressed concern that removing the IRGC from the FTO would reduce sanctions pressure but have little evidence for this. This group of commentators have spilled much ink in cataloging the evidence that the IRGC engages in terrorism, but the other side does not dispute this.
Some opponents to delisting the IRGC make more persuasive points that might have influence with the Biden team. While the FTO designation has little material impact on the IRGC, that does not mean that its symbolic value is worthless. If removing the IRGC from the FTO list is important to Iran, then it must have meaning. It is reasonable to argue that the IRGC’s behavior should merit removal before taking it off the list. Removing the IRGC from the list could damage US relations with partners in the region, primarily Israel and the Gulf states, especially after the Biden administration removed the Houthis from the list in 2021. Furthermore, Iran has insisted that negotiations focus only on nuclear issues, but its FTO request implies a broader scope.
While Biden has not publicly taken a clear position, statements from US officials provide clues. State Department spokesman Ned Price suggested on April 18 that, if Iran wanted to expand the scope of negotiations beyond nuclear issues, then Washington would expect Iran to address US concerns “that go beyond the JCPOA.” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley recently said that the IRGC’s Quds Force should not be delisted. A State Department spokesperson said that the president agrees that the Quds Force is a terrorist organization, according to Al-Monitor. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on April 6 that he was “not overly optimistic” about reaching a deal. Biden wants a revived JCPOA, but, if he removed the IRGC from the FTO, Republicans would accuse him of giving in to Iran and terrorists.
Fortunately, Washington has options. Several experts have suggested ways to use Iran’s demand as leverage in negotiations. There are reports that the Biden team might remove the IRGC from the FTO list while specifically designating the Quds Force as an FTO, though Iran reportedly has rejected the idea. Other reports suggest that Washington might offer to delist the IRGC in exchange for a public pledge from Tehran to de-escalate regional tensions and halt attacks on Americans. Washington Post writer Jason Rezaian, who was held hostage in Iran, also proposed steps to specifically sanction IRGC officials who have engaged in human rights violations and to demand that Tehran make payments granted by US courts to victims of Iranian hostage-taking and acts of terrorism.
While the FTO list has little material impact on the IRGC, it has symbolic value. Washington should not concede this point without gaining something from Iran in return. The Biden team wants to revive the JCPOA, but there are limits on what it will concede.
• Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 18 years of experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica. Twitter: @KBAresearch