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The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp as a Foreign Terrorist Organization: Economic and Legal Implica

By Michael Thompson


The Trump Administration used Section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (codified as 8 U.S.C. § 1189) to designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC), a branch of Iran’s military, as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) on April 8, 2019. This was the first time that the United States classified part of a foreign government as an official terrorist organization. President Trump asserted that “Iran’s actions are fundamentally different from those of other governments,” and the U.S. Department of State declared the designation “a significant step forward in our maximum pressure campaign against the Iranian regime.” But what are the implications of this designation, and how could the United States use it to further its national security interests?

FTO Designation Procedure

Under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), should the Secretary of State decide to designate an organization as an FTO, the Secretary must give Congress classified, written notice of the designation and seven days to review the decision. After the designation, the Treasury Secretary may block the organization’s assets in the United States. Aliens affiliated with the FTO may be denied admission or deported, and under 18 U.S.C. § 2339B(a)(1), anyone who knowingly provides material or financial support to an FTO may face criminal prosecution. Once an organization is designated by the Secretary of State, the designation can only be revoked by the Secretary, and only under the following circumstances: the reasoning warranting the designation changes; American national security interests demand the revocation; or at any other time.

Implications of the IRGC Designation

What does the IRGC’s FTO designation change? Not much. Because the IRGC is already sanctioned by the United States, “every major, reputable global company or bank . . . avoid[s] the IRGC,” as Elizabeth Rosenberg explained. Thus, according to sanctions compliance attorney Peter Jeydel, “in practice, the FTO designation does not lead to any additional ‘blocking’ requirement under U.S. law.” Long before the 2019 designation, the United States designated the IRGC through various economic mechanisms. As Lawfare contributor Elena Chachko documented: “The Treasury Department designated the IRGC in 2007 pursuant to Executive Order 13382 for supporting Iran’s ballistic missile and nuclear programs; in 2011 pursuant to Executive Order 13553 for its role in human rights violations; in 2012 pursuant to Executive Order 13606 for similar reasons; and in 2017 under Executive Order 13224 on international terrorism.” Additionally, the Congressional Research Service noted that since 1984, the United States has designated Iran as a “state sponsor of acts of international terrorism,” which in itself places “certain U.S. sanctions on Iran’s government and its instrumentalities.”

There is a wrinkle to the FTO designation, however. It technically allows the government to prosecute foreigners outside of the United States who provide material or financial support to the IRGC, “while the SDGT regime [i.e. Specially Designated Global Terrorist under Executive Order 13224] only prohibits such actions by U.S. persons or [persons] within the U.S.” The consequences wrought by this “added” extraterritoriality are unclear. On one hand, data suggests that the material support statute (18 U.S.C. § 2339A and 2339B) is a favored weapon in the hands of the federal government. A database studying terrorism prosecutions in the U.S. found that since the attacks of 9/11, “[fifty-two] percent of terrorism defendants prosecuted by the Justice Department have been charged with material support.” Part of this trend may be because courts have given the government some flexibility in using the statute.

The Humanitarian Law Project ruling, in particular, could expose the IRGC and individuals materially or financially affiliated with the organization to greater culpability in U.S. courts. In that case, the Supreme Court held that “to serve the Government’s interest in preventing terrorism, it was necessary to prohibit providing material support . . . to foreign terrorist groups, even if the supporters meant to promote only the groups’ nonviolent ends.” Consequently, the “material support” statute encompasses activities beyond purely violent or “terroristic” ones. The supporters in Humanitarian Law Project, for example, could still be punished even though their conduct involved peaceful activities such as training an FTO’s members on resolving disputes through international law and instructing members on how to petition for relief before the United Nations.

The IRGC is heavily entrenched in Iranian society, thus its actions go beyond mere violence. Indeed, it “functions as an expansive socio-political-economic conglomerate,” whose presence “in the economic sphere . . . has seen the greatest growth and diversification.” As a result, as Chachko observed, “the Supreme Court’s logic . . . which rejects the idea that terrorist and non-terrorist activities of an FTO can be segregated for material support statute purposes, could equally apply to the IRGC.” The government could theoretically cast a wide prosecutorial net.

On the other hand, the designation could face legal limitations and other challenges. Chiefly, as Dr. Matthew Levitt recognized, the statute requires that the government prove a defendant’s knowledge of providing material support. “Since the IRGC’s role in the Iranian economy is notoriously opaque, proving a standard of ‘knowingly providing material support’ could prove difficult.” Second, given that this is the first designation of a part of a government, the U.S. could be entering new territory by possibly “establishing a new precedent for broader use of the FTO regime.” As Scott Anderson of the Brookings Institution stated, “This is likely to make at least some foreign governments uncomfortable, even if they are also antagonistic towards Iran.”

Time will tell if the designation aids national security interests or merely furthers Iran’s resolve.


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