Over the last few weeks, diplomats have shifted from saying the revival of the Iran nuclear deal was coming in a matter of days to admitting it was entirely uncertain whether it would go through at all. Negotiations in Vienna began nearly a year ago, but time is of the essence from the West’s perspective: In less than a month, Iran could possess uranium capable of making a nuclear bomb. But sensing its advantage, Iran has been engaging in last-minute haggling.
After then-U.S. President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the agreement in 2018, Iran began enriching uranium to 60 percent, close to the 90 percent threshold required for nuclear weapons. Iran has now agreed to dial back its uranium enrichment to 3.67 percent, as established in the original deal.
Iran had demanded in turn that the United States formally state that future U.S. governments will abide by the deal, but that request was summarily denied. Iranians had been feeling nervous about the longevity of the deal given Republican opposition; former Vice President Mike Pence has said a revived deal would be ripped apart by Republicans if and when they return to the White House. Iran, however, has reportedly been put at ease by an apparent agreement that would allow it to avoid completely destroying its advanced centrifuges (although it’s not yet clear whether Iran would merely disconnect these centrifuges or dismantle them and send them to a third country for safekeeping).
Everything seemed settled—almost everything. But then Iran threw a spanner in the works by demanding it wouldn’t budge until that the United States agreed to remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from the State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list. There’s plenty of reason to be irritated by Iran’s diplomatic hardball—but given the delicate context, this is a concession the United States should be prepared to make.
Iran had originally insisted that non-nuclear issues should not be included in talks intended to revive a nuclear deal. The Biden administration agreed to exclude from the talks both Iran’s regional aggression through various proxy militias and its ballistic missile program. Washington’s traditional allies in the Middle East were deeply disappointed at this decision. If Washington lifts the IRGC’s terrorist designation, they will interpret it as the biggest insult of all.
Last week the United States imposed fresh sanctions on entities linked to Iran’s ballistic missile program to assuage the concerns of its allies. Moreover, both U.S. special envoy for Iran Robert Malley and Secretary of State Antony Blinken emphasized that, regardless of the IRGC’s terrorist designation, the United States will still treat it as an illegitimate entity and that a range of sanctions will remain on the group that hinder it from doing business abroad.
The group has indeed been slapped with all kinds of sanctions since 2007 that block American businesses and banks from engaging with the IRGC and affiliated entities. The IRGC was added to the FTO list only in 2019 under Trump’s maximum pressure campaign, but that has had a limited effect on the IRGC’s abilities to wreak havoc in the region. The group has continued to support its proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, and it has moved around freely in the region despite the terrorist designation.
Given the foreign and domestic pressures in favor of keeping the IRGC on the terrorist list, delisting the organization isn’t an attractive choice for any American president. But dealing with Iran has never been about pleasant choices. The question is whether the benefits of a restored nuclear deal (prior to Iran achieving producing uranium sufficient to produce a bomb) outweigh the costs of delisting the IRGC.
Some experts believe that since the IRGC would remain subject to sanctions under multiple other U.S. sanctions programs, delisting it from the terrorist list isn’t a major concession by the Biden administration. Ali Vaez, Iran Project director at the International Crisis Group, said that the terrorist designation had no effect in curtailing the group’s offensive armed operations in the region. Instead, soon after being delisted, the group intensified attacks in the region.
“Within weeks, suspected Iranian attacks were taking place against commercial shipping. Frequent attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq,” he said. “It’s difficult to argue that the designation has done anything to curtail the IRGC’s influence; in fact, we’ve seen it grow more brazen.”
Reports say that Iran has assured it would make a commitment to de-escalate in the region in return for the IRGC’s removal as a terrorist entity. But there is no certainty it would follow up on that promise, leading to warnings by some that the FTO designation should be lifted only once the IRGC reins in its militias in neighboring nations where they hold local political systems hostage to Iran’s whims. Others recommend that any pledges by Iran should be made public.
“If a delisting is being tied to new commitments by the Iranian side—for example affecting their missile arsenal, maritime activities, or regional behavior—they should clearly be laid out and divulged to the public to deny the Iranian regime any room for interpretation,” said Farzin Nadimi, an associate fellow with the Washington Institute.
Iran’s demand to delist the IRGC seems to have more to do with the country’s hard-liner President Ebrahim Raisi’s push to appease his domestic allies. The IRGC was formed in 1979 as the armed unit of the Islamic Revolution and mandated with protecting the revolution’s religious character. It fought in the eight-year-long war with Iraq in the 1980s and doubled as the clerical establishment’s domestic military. The IRGC still answers only to supreme leader of the country, currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Over the last 40 years, the IRGC has been empowered by the Ayatollahs to be used against moderate political and market forces in Iran to maintain their hegemony. According to some estimates it controls nearly a third of Iran’s economy, although it likely controls much more. Most of its business endeavors are a subject of public consternation and kept a secret. Its affiliated construction company has been handed thousands of lucrative construction contracts by the government, won rigged bids to privatize the telecommunications sector, and runs everything from mining companies to the online gaming industry to contraband procurement in the country. More controversially, it was allowed to enter Iran’s valuable energy sector by former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who had previously served in the IRGC’s intelligence and security units.
For the IRGC, however, removal from the FTO list is a question of prestige and honor, as they see themselves as a protector of an Islamic order in Iran and a force for good in the region against Sunni jihadis. The Iranian establishment in its current form clearly agrees. Indeed, given the base of support the IRGC has in Iran’s political and religious establishment, it’s hard to imagine what role sanctions could play in significantly damaging it. The only way to sustainably weaken the group would be for Iranian moderates to gain a much larger degree of influence over the entire political system. There is little the U.S. government can do to achieve that goal in the short term, and certainly not in the context of nuclear negotiations.
The fight over the IRGC’s status remains a battle of nerves, and it’s not yet clear who will blink first. But it might not be wiser for the West to concede, because time is not on its side. If the West were to allow Iran two more weeks or a month to continue to make progress on nuclear enrichment, it could obviate the deal entirely. Vaez summed up the conundrum over the IRGC’s terrorist designation as an absurd issue. “It doesn’t help the U.S.; it doesn’t hurt Iran,” he said.