WASHINGTON - The recent U.S. designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization could increase tensions between the United States and Iran in the Middle East, where both countries have a strong military presence, some experts warn.
The designation, which formally took effect this week, adds another layer of sanctions to the elite Iranian military force. The designation makes it a crime for anyone in the U.S. or in a U.S. jurisdiction to provide the group with material support.
Following President Donald Trump's decision last week, the Iranian government made a reciprocal move and labeled the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) a terrorist entity. CENTCOM is responsible for U.S. military activities in the Middle East and Central Asia.
?Mohammad Ali Jafari, the IRGC's commander-in-chief, warned that his elite force has the upper hand in the region over U.S. forces.
"If the Americans make such a silly move and endanger our national security, we will implement reciprocal measures based on the policies of Iran's Islamic establishment," he said during a meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif last week.
Some analysts say that such rhetoric could escalate to a direct military showdown between the two sides.
"This designation will bring the risk of confrontation to a higher level," Hooshang Amirahmadi, a professor at Rutgers University, told VOA. "The other side (Iran) is also considering this probability with scrutiny and seriousness, as IRGC has moved some of its proxies, including Iraqi PMF forces, into the Iranian border to strengthen its stance as a precautionary measure."
Other analysts believe a direct confrontation is unlikely at this point.
"Iran will be cautious and just respond rhetorically for now," said Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council in Washington. "The IRGC can pose a threat, but it would most likely not be direct but through an Iran-backed militia group in Iraq, Syria or perhaps Afghanistan."
Over the past few years, Iran has formed and funded various Shiite militias throughout the region through which the IRGC has played a major role in conflicts such as in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
The terrorist designation also raises some legal challenges, some experts charge.
"Current and future U.S. administrations may once again find themselves in a situation, where they are in need of the IRGC's assistance fighting the next terrorist organization posing a threat to both countries. And I am certain there will be another one," said Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, referring to how U.S. and Iranian forces have fought Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
"In the (2014) battle of Tikrit against the Islamic State, the U.S. Air Force provided air support to Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani's Quds Force and the Iraqi Shiite militias under Soleimani's direct or indirect command," Alfoneh said. "I can well imagine this scenario repeat itself in the not so distant future."
Alireza Nourizadeh, a London-based Iranian analyst, believes that regardless of whether the terrorist designation potentially leads to direct confrontation between the U.S. and Iran, labeling "IRGC as a terrorist organization would greatly affect Tehran's role in the region, and IRGC commanders would not be able to travel freely across the Middle East to oversee the dirty job being conducted by their proxies."
Nourizadeh added that the IRGC has no capability to confront the U.S. in the region.
Iranians "aren't in a position to do any harm (to the U.S.), as they know they cannot mess with this administration," he said. "Their decreasing of threats to the U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf is a clear sign of their consternation."
Tensions erupted last December between Tehran and Washington after the U.S. deployed an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf, which prompted the IRGC to send vessels to tail it, launch rockets away from it and fly a drone nearby. Ever since, however, the situation has been largely calm.
Hamid Baeidinejad, Iran's envoy to the U.K., said U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region were in a volatile situation and that it wouldn't be wise for the U.S. to take action against the IRGC.
Washington would not instruct U.S. forces to confront the IRGC and treat it as a terrorist force, Baeidinejad said during an interview with CNN last week.
There are "some terrorist groups on the list that the U.S. has not taken any steps against them," Rutgers professor Amirahmadi said. "For instance, the Lebanese Hezbollah has been sitting there, but the U.S. has not taken any military measures against them so far. And despite their role in the country's parliament, the U.S. continues its relationship with Lebanon and only asked the government to restrain (Hezbollah militants) or limit their activities."