It would be the first time the United States has placed the armed forces of a sovereign government on its list of terrorist organizations.
The question is: Why this possible move, and why now?
Tensions between Washington and Tehran have been rising in recent months, with the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush accusing Iran of arming militants in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as secretly pursuing a nuclear weapons program.
Iran denies the charges.
'There Will Be Consequences'
Bush, speaking last week in Washington, raised the stakes himself, saying there would be “a price to pay” for Iran’s alleged smuggling of weapons to Iraq.
"One of the main reasons that I asked [U.S.] Ambassador [to Iraq Ryan] Crocker to meet with Iranians inside Iraq," Bush said, "was to send the message that there will be consequences for people transporting, delivering [explosively formed penetrators], highly sophisticated [improvised explosive devices] that kill Americans in Iraq."
Now, the United States looks set to take an even more aggressive approach to Iran.
According to U.S. media reports, citing unidentified administration officials, a decision has been made in principle to name elements of the corps a "specially designated global terrorist" group. That designation was created by Bush in 2001 as part of larger measures to cut off funding for extremists.
The move would allow the United States to block the guards' financial accounts and other assets.
Power Base For Ahmadinejad
The Revolutionary Guards Corps dates to the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Its branches reportedly extend widely throughout the Iranian military, and some estimates put the total number of guards forces at round 125,000. The corps is seen as being a power base for Iran’s hard-line President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.
Ahmadinejad himself was a member of the guards during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s.
But why move against it now?
According to "The New York Times,” Washington could have several motives.
The United States is reportedly concerned about delays in efforts to win approval from the UN Security Council for further economic and diplomatic sanctions on Iran. Reports say the administration may feel it has little choice but to take unilateral action.
More Muscular Approach
In that sense, putting the Revolutionary Guards on the foreign terrorist list could further press Washington's European allies to back stronger sanctions against Iran. There is also talk that the move could help satisfy U.S. “hawks,” such as Vice President Dick Cheney, who have been calling for a more muscular approach to Iran.
But the designation itself could also prove to be a significant financial blow to the military group.
“This will have some implication on regional security, because the Revolutionary Guards support a number of armed movements in the region, like Hizballah, like Islamic Jihad," according to Baghdad-born Mustafa Alani, an anlayst with London’s Royal United Services Institute who also serves as director of security and terrorism studies at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai.
Revolutionary Guards Corps is now a very strange organization. When it
was founded, it was just a people’s army to defend the country, but it
is not only like a classic army. It has several other functions," Mohsen Sazgara, a former member of the guards and now a critic of the Iranian regime, told Radio Farda.
"For example, its Basij force is something like a militia inside Iran, which attacks demonstrations and is used for suppressing the people of Iran," Sazgara says. "And the famous Quds Force is a part of Sepah, another force of the Revolutionary Guards that’s involved in all activity outside Iran, and is suspected as a terrorist force outside Iran: in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Palestine."
The guards are known to have extensive business interests and investments in Iran. Although the extent of their holdings outside the country is not clear, the guards are believed to have assets abroad.
“Putting the name of the Revolutionary Corps among terrorist organizations can be very problematic for the [force], particularly on the international scene," Alireza Nourizadeh, an Iranian-born journalist based in London, tells Radio Farda. "It could mean that [in the future] companies that the Revolutionary Guards own in Europe or in Dubai will not be able to easily continue their economic and other activities.”
The media reports say Washington could make the designation as early as this month, although they also caution that the move could still be called off.
The State Department has had no immediate comment on the reports.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Force (pasdaran) was created in 1979 by the father of the Iranian Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, to safeguard that revolution.
The IRGC has several components whose numbers are widely disputed, but any serious estimates put their ranks at upward of 100,000. They operate independently or in cooperation with regular army forces.
President Mahmud Ahmadinejad reportedly served during the Iran-Iraq War as an instructor for the IRGC's volunteer-based Basij, a blunt official instrument to police moral values. IRGC allies form an influential segment of Ahmadinejad's power base.
Many of the most recent accusations emerging from the United States have involved the so-called Quds (Jerusalem) Force, whose responsibilities include extraterritorial operations that initially included efforts to export Iran's Shi'ite revolution. The Quds Force officially reports directly to the country's supreme leader, currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.