The Trump administration has designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization. The designation is long overdue, yet many Americans may not know that the IRGC has been a leading killer of U.S. troops.
According to new information released last week by the administration, Iran was responsible for the deaths of over six hundred U.S. service members in Iraq between 2003 and 2011, a significant percentage of U.S. casualties in the conflict. That statistic does not include the thousands of Americans injured in Iraq due to the actions of Tehran and its proxies.
Both the Bush and Obama administrations released information about Iran’s role in killing U.S. service members in Iraq. Nonetheless, the report last week increases by approximately 100, the reported number of American troops Tehran is responsible for killing.
The report also echoes the findings of an exhaustive two-volume Army study published in January entitled, “The U.S. Army in the Iraq War.” The study’s authors conducted countless interviews and reviewed tens of thousands of pages of documents—much of it previously classified. They found that “The Iranian regime produced sophisticated and lethal technology for their Iraqi proxies to use against U.S. troops.” This included explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) and improvised rocket-assisted munitions (IRAMs). The report notes, “The nature of the EFP smuggling operation and the employment of EFPs left U.S. commanders with no doubt that the weapons were part of an Iranian regime proxy war against the United States and parts of the Iraqi Government.”
The IRGC and its Quds Force played a pivotal role in supporting the Shiite militia proxies that employed Iranian weapons. The Army report notes, “The major Shi’a militant networks all owed their potency—and even existence—to the Iranian regime’s Quds Force and its powerful commander, Qassem Soleimani.”
Tehran’s effort to kill American troops in Iraq during that period was part of a longstanding campaign targeting the U.S. military. Indeed, Iran played an important role in the 1983 Beirut embassy bombing that killed 241 American service members and helped plan and finance the 1996 Khobar Towers truck bombing in Saudi Arabia that murdered 19 U.S. airmen. As Brian Hook, Senior Policy Advisor to the Secretary of State and Special Representative for Iran, said Monday, “The IRGC has been threatening American troops almost since its inception.”
Tehran has also served as an active collaborator with al Qaeda—harboring, training, and supporting al Qaeda operatives for years.
More recently, the IRGC has worked in Syria to prop up a murderous, anti-American despot in Bashar al-Assad. In Lebanon, the IRGC has supported Hezbollah and its efforts to threaten Israel. In Yemen, the IRGC has fomented instability and supported missile attacks against U.S. vessels and partners.
While the U.S. has taken some important steps against the IRGC, there is much more than can be done. It is past time to impose and maximally enforce the toughest possible sanctions against the sectors of the Iranian economy that touch the IRGC. The designation of the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization provides an opportunity to hold foreign persons criminally liable for supporting the IRGC’s terrorism and actions against our troops.
The IRGC controls an expansive criminal, financial, and industrial empire accounting for between 20 to 40 percent of the Iranian gross domestic product by most estimates. The IRGC is, in the words of the U.S. Treasury Department, Iran’s “most powerful economic actor, dominating many sectors of the economy, including energy, construction, and banking” playing a significant role in Iran’s oil, mining, telecommunications, petrochemicals, and automotive sectors.
Some will argue this step will not change Tehran’s behavior. Unfortunately, IRGC terrorism may continue—at least until the Iranian people have a government more interested in their well-being than threatening neighbors and exporting terror.
However, recent protests suggest that the patience of some Iranians for the regime’s counterproductive policies is growing thin. Additional sanctions focused on the IRGC’s support for terrorism may further highlight the economic consequences of the regime’s policies.
Regardless, as a matter of principle and policy, the U.S. must increase the costs for Tehran’s support for terror and make clear that targeting Americans will invite severe consequences. Plus, sectoral sanctions focused on the IRGC could deprive it of funding to promote terrorism and kill Americans and our allies.
As Mr. Hook explained on Monday, “What endangers American troops in the Middle East is an IRGC that operates with impunity and never has its ambitions checked in the Middle East.”
The Army report on the Iraq War noted that the U.S. responded to Iran’s use of EFPs and IRAMs to kill U.S. services members in Iraq “only at the tactical and operational levels, not the strategic.”
It’s time for that to change, and imposing sectoral sanctions against the IRGC is a good place to start.
Bradley Bowman is senior director for the Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Andrew Gabel is a research analyst. Follow Bradley and Andrew on Twitter at @Brad_L_Bowman and @Andrew_B_Gabel. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.