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Has Trump Locked U.S. and Iran into a “Permanent State of Enmity” by Listing IRGC as Terror Group?

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In an unprecedented move, the Trump administration has designated Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization, resulting in sweeping economic and travel restrictions on its members. This marks the first time the United States has formally labeled an arm of another country’s military a terrorist group. The Pentagon and CIA opposed the decision, warning it could put U.S. troops at risk. Key backers of the move included national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who formally announced the new policy on Monday. The step is the latest in the White House’s efforts to isolate Iran after the U.S. withdrew from the landmark Iran nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions on the country last year despite widespread international condemnation. We speak with Trita Parsi, the founder of the National Iranian American Council. His most recent book is titled “Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy.” Parsi is an adjunct associate professor in the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In an unprecedented move, the Trump administration has designated Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization, resulting in sweeping economic and travel restrictions on its members. This marks the first time the United States has formally labeled an arm of another country’s military a terrorist group. The Pentagon and CIA opposed the decision, warning it could put U.S. troops at risk. Key backers of the move included national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who formally announced the new policy on Monday.

SECRETARY OF STATE MIKE POMPEO: Today the United States is continuing to build its maximum pressure campaign against the Iranian regime. I am announcing our intent to designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, including its Quds Force, as a foreign terrorist organization, in accordance with Section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act. This designation will take effect one week from today. This is the first time that the United States has designated a part of another government as an FTO. We’re doing it because the Iranian regime’s use of terrorism as a tool of statecraft makes it fundamentally different from any other government. This historic step will deprive the world’s leading state sponsor of terror the financial means to spread misery and death around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: The step is the latest in the White House’s efforts to isolate Iran after the U.S. withdrew from the landmark Iran nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions on the country last year despite widespread international condemnation.

The New York Times reports the Trump administration timed the announcement in an attempt to give a last-minute boost to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of today’s elections in Israel. Netanyahu thanked Trump on Twitter for taking the action against the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Iranian officials swiftly condemned the new policy and warned the designation will destabilize the region. On Monday, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council retaliated by designating the United States Central Command, known as CENTCOM, and all its forces as terrorists. The council also labeled the U.S. as a “supporter of terrorism.”

Well, for more, we go to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by Trita Parsi, the founder of the National Iranian American Council. His most recent book is titled Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy. He’s also the author of A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran. Trita Parsi is an adjunct associate professor in the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University.

Trita, welcome back to Democracy Now! The significance of this U.S. designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as terrorist, and then Iran reciprocates by doing the same with Central Command?

TRITA PARSI: So, there’s both short-term and long-term consequences of this. In the short term, of course, as the CIA and the Pentagon themselves have warned, is that this actually does increase the risk of a confrontation in the region, and in that sense it actually makes the United States less safe by increasing the likelihood of war.

The long-term effects, however, I think, are even more problematic, because they’re more likely. And that is that this move seems to be designed to entrap the United States in a permanent state of enmity with Iran. See, if a future administration, let’s say in 2020 or 2024, decides that he actually wants to reverse some of the measures of the Trump administration, he wants to re-enter the JCPOA, or he just wants to pursue some form of normal diplomacy with Iran in order to reduce tensions with that country, it will find its political maneuverability significantly inhibited by this decision. For instance, being able to go back into the JCPOA requires the United States to lift the sanctions that it has been reimposing under the Trump administration, but that will be much, much more difficult now, because those sanctions have been reimposed under the terrorism clause, and now the IRGC is on the terrorist list. So the political capital for the next administration to do something constructive and actually create some sort of a diplomatic momentum with Iran will necessitate reversing this decision on the IRGC. And that’s an extremely heavy lift. And as a result, the future opportunities for diplomacy are going to be significantly hampered by this, which then traps the United States in this prolonged, almost permanent state of enmity with Iran, which I think is precisely what someone like Netanyahu and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia actually are looking for.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Trita, what about the impact on neighboring countries, especially Iraq and Syria, where, effectively, the Revolutionary Guard functioned—were, in effect, working together with the United States against ISIS?

TRITA PARSI: Yeah, so, in Iraq, for instance, the IRGC and the Iranians were, according to the Iraqis, the first ones to arrive, the first ones to send in ammunition and help in order to defeat ISIS. And according to the Iraqi defense minister, had it not been for Iran, Baghdad likely would have fallen to ISIS. And then, because this was during the Obama administration, the Iranians and the Americans coordinated, through the Iraqis, how they were jointly defeating and fighting back against ISIS. That type of an opportunity for collaboration obviously now is closed off as a result of this designation.

Moreover, this is putting a tremendous amount of pressure on Iraq. Iraq is already in a very delicate situation. The country has been severely destabilized as a result of the invasion, and they are stuck between the United States and Iran. They need the Iranians for a whole set of different things. And most importantly, they want to avoid becoming an arena in which the United States and Iran fight each other on Iraqi soil. So, they’re really a drive-by shooting victim in all of this.

And this designation makes it even more difficult for them, because many of the companies and many of the entities that they’re working with in Iran are, one way or another, connected to the IRGC. And I think this is an important thing to keep in mind. According to the U.S. government itself, this designation may include up to as many as 11 million people, almost one-eighth of Iran’s population. So this is not designating a small entity that is actually manageable. This is talking about 11 million people. And you can then imagine how problematic that will be for neighboring countries, who, for their own interests, obviously, want to have some sort of a peaceful relationship with Iran.

AMY GOODMAN: All of this is coming as Iran is struggling under heavy flooding. The New York Times reports that Iran’s Foreign Ministry accused the Trump administration of blocking efforts to aid Iranian victims of calamitous floods through inhumane and cruel restrictions imposed by renewed American banking sanctions on the country. Can you explain what’s happening here?

TRITA PARSI: The Trump administration, and as Secretary Pompeo said, has gone for what they call a maximum pressure campaign. They have reimposed sanctions. They have threatened banks with astronomical fines. They have imposed astronomical fines for anyone who has been even just in the gray zone of violating those sanctions. And as a result, they have created a situation in which no banks are willing to deal with the Iranian banking system.

And incidentally, I think it’s also important to note, much of this existed during the Obama administration, as well, because that’s when this maximum strategy actually originated from. But then, once the nuclear deal was struck, the U.S. government at that time went on a tour and were essentially doing everything that could to get banks to start connecting with Iranian banks again.

The Trump administration has reversed that. They have scared away all of the banks. And as a result, even though these transactions are not sanctioned by the United States, they are not prohibited by the United States, the pressure on the banks has led to a scenario in which no one is willing to handle the transactions, which has left the Iranians in a very precarious situation, because it’s very difficult for them to now get aid from the outside, because no one is willing to handle those financial transactions.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what about the impact internally on Iran of this latest move of the Trump administration, given the fact that the Rouhani administration, a more moderate administration, clearly, was seeking to, in one way or another, rein in the Revolutionary Guard?

TRITA PARSI: Yeah, this is a quite a bit of irony of all of this. The Rouhani government has been at loggerheads with the IRGC for quite some time and has tried to really reduce the IRGC’s influence on Iran’s society, which is very extensive, and it should be noted that the IRGC itself has played a very negative role in clampdowns, in repression, etc., inside the country. But now, as a result of this decision, you can clearly see a rallying-around-the-flag situation in Iran, in which a lot of the folks that are very critical of the IRGC, view them as their political opponents, have now felt forced to come out and defend the IRGC, because now they’re all essentially sensing that they’re in the same boat. And this is one part of the very counterproductive notion of this decision. Instead of actually creating more space for those in Iran who want to see a more open society, who want to move Iran closer to the West, offer the population far greater freedoms, etc., those forces right now are on the defensive because of the aggression by the Trump administration. And they’re even feeling forced to come out and defend the IRGC, even though under normal circumstances they would be viewing the IRGC as their main opponents for the purpose of bringing greater democracy to Iran.

AMY GOODMAN: In 2017, Adam Davidson of The New Yorker wrote a piece headlined “Donald Trump’s Worst Deal.” According to the article, Trump helped build a hotel in Azerbaijan that appears to be a corrupt operation engineered by oligarchs tied to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. Davidson reports the Trump Organization’s chief legal officer, Alan Garten, acknowledged that Trump and his daughter Ivanka knew their Baku, Azerbaijan, partners were likely laundering money for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. Davidson tweeted Monday asking reporters to include these details in their reporting on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard terrorist designation. Can you explain this, Trita?

TRITA PARSI: Well, should we really be surprised by now, mindful of everything else that we know about how the Trump Organization has been operating? I don’t see why we would think at all that the Trump Organization would have any qualms about dealing with a company in Azerbaijan that likely was laundering money for the IRGC.

And what this really shows, that what this comes down to is not because there was a great sense that this actually would advance America’s national interest or that this truly would put more pressure on Iran economically. In fact, the IRGC is already tremendously sanctioned. This designation does not add any significant or meaningful additional economic pressure on the IRGC. All it does is that it creates political obstacles for future administrations to be able to actually resolve tensions with Iran.

And I think that is very much the intent of someone like John Bolton. It’s very much the intent of Bibi Netanyahu and MBS, and the Israelis have been pushing for this for a very, very long time. And the Trump administration has essentially auctioned out its foreign policy in the Middle East to the highest bidder and is doing a tremendous amount of favors to its allies there, completely disregarding what this will have—the impact that this will have on the U.S.’s own national interest.

It is noteworthy that both the Pentagon and the CIA oppose this. They have opposed this for quite some time, when this proposal was first brought up more than 10 years ago, precisely because of the fact that it actually makes America less safe. That does not seem to be much of a concern for Donald Trump, however.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Trita, would you comment on the potential impact of the Iranian government declaring the United States Central Command as a terrorist organization, now what potentially that could lead to in the Middle East?

TRITA PARSI: I don’t think that response by the Iranians will lead to them actually targeting U.S. troops or anything of that measure. But what it does show is that pressure gets counterpressure. Instead of thinking that this maximum pressure campaign will actually force the Iranians to capitulate, all that it does is that it creates an escalatory cycle in which there will be a tit-for-tat. And if there are no exit ramps from this, then the tit-for-tat eventually will lead to a military confrontation. That’s the danger here. The Iranian response, I think, more than anything else, is symbolic in that sense.

But what I think has happened internally, however, is more important. They are now closing ranks. They’re seeing themselves as being in the same boat. And the divisions that existed within the regime between various parties is now essentially brushed over because they have this greater external threat. And the biggest losers out of that are those in Iran who have argued for trying to find some way to reconcile with the United States, to try to find some way to improve relations with the West and the United States, those people who were championing the nuclear deal as a way of reducing tensions with the rest of the world. They are the biggest losers of this, because they cannot show any longer that their diplomacy and their efforts for reconciliation have actually brought about a better situation for ordinary Iranians. On the contrary, it’s only begot on them greater hostility, because of what the Trump administration has decided to do.

AMY GOODMAN: Will this broaden U.S. military actions in Syria, because now that they’re calling the Iranian Revolutionary Guard terrorists, it will broaden their targets there?

TRITA PARSI: I think there is a risk for that, because we’ve seen how the Trump—those people in the Trump administration, such as Bolton, who have constantly tried to make sure that the U.S.’s presence in Syria would continue, have had a hard time being able to justify that, both internally as well as externally. Trump has gone out and said that ISIS is defeated, time to go home. Bolton has done everything he could to be able to keep the troops there, and using Iran as a pretext for that by saying that the troops have to stay there in order to keep the Iranians out.

Now he has a new argument. If the United States was there to defeat ISIS because it’s a terrorist organization, even if Trump believes that that job is finished, he still hasn’t finished the job as a whole, though, because the IRGC is in Syria, and the IRGC is now designated a terrorist organization. So I suspect that that argument will be used by those inside the administration in order to convince Trump that he needs to stay in Syria and probably to escalate tensions in Syria by starting to target the IRGC there. If that happens, then we are one giant step closer to a broader war.

AMY GOODMAN: Trita Parsi, we want to thank you for being with us, founder of the National Iranian American Council, most recent book, Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy, also author of A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran. Trita Parsi is an adjunct associate professor in the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, the Trump administration’s policies around immigration. President Trump is calling on border guards to break the law to stop all people from coming into the United States, and to get rid of immigration judges. We’ll talk about all that and more, coming up.

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