WASHINGTON - In the latest escalation of tensions between the United States and Iran, President Donald Trump on Monday labeled Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a foreign terrorist organization — an unprecedented move that marks the first time the U.S. has formally named another country's military as terrorists. Experts say the decision will likely raise the already strained relationship between the two countries to a much higher level.
Here is a look at the history of the IRGC.
The Revolutionary Guard Corps, known in Iran as Pasdaran, was founded in April 1979 shortly after the Islamic Revolution and the overthrow of Iran's pro-western monarch Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi.
The IRGC's core task, as mandated by late supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini, is to protect the country's Islamic system and revolutionary values.
"In principle, the Iranian state could eventually reform itself outside the bounds envisioned by that revolution, in spite of the numerous constitutional safeguards Khomeini set up, to include clerical oversight of the elected government," said Brad Patty, a former U.S. army adviser and analyst. "In practice, the IRGC exists to ensure that never happens. The population of Iran may wish what it will, but they are meant to live in terror of the IRGC."
The IRGC today has become a major military, political and economic player in Iran, with an estimated 150,000-strong military consisting of ground forces, navy, and air units. It is also in charge of the country's ballistic missiles and nuclear programs.
Organizationally, the IRGC falls under the Joint Armed Forces General Staff as a part of the Ministry of Defense. But the military remains subordinate to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, with elected civilian authorities exercising no real control, according to international policy organization Counter Extremism Project.
Internally, the IRGC also commands the Basij Resistance Force, a religious volunteer group that channels popular support to the regime and suppresses domestic dissent. The paramilitary force monitors compliance with the country's strict customs, such as arresting women who violate the regime's public dress codes and raiding Western-style parties where alcohol may be served.
Externally, the IRGC's uses its shadowy Quds Force led by Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani and proxy Shiite militias such as the Lebanese Hezbollah to extend its influence across the Middle East and beyond.
International activities and ties
The elite Quds Force was created during the Iran-Iraq War in 1980 and has about 15,000 personnel.
The group has been involved in Middle East conflicts for decades either directly or by providing support to pro-Iranian militias and governments, particularly in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, the Palestinian territories and Afghanistan.
More recently, the Quds Force were crucial to the Syrian civil war by supporting President Bashar al-Assad against the rebels.
In Iraq, the group played a key role in helping the Shiite-dominated government in the fight against IS and thwarting a Kurdish bid for independence.
The Quds Force is also considered the lifeline of Houthi rebels in their struggle against the internationally recognized government in Yemen.
The U.S. designated the Quds Force as a supporter of terrorism as early as 2007, followed by Canada in 2012. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, two key neighboring rivals to Iran, designated IRGC a terror entity in 2018.
The United Nations and the European Union have refrained from designating the IRGC as a terror entity but have blacklisted key individuals of the force, including its leader Qasem Soleimani.
Analysts say the U.S. decision Monday to sanction the IRGC entirely will allow Washington to introduce further sanctions on Iran in the future as a part of the Trump administration's strategy of putting "maximum pressure" on the Iranian regime.
The sanctions will particularly affect the business sector in Iran, given the IRGC's involvement in economic activities, an analyst and journalist based in Tehran told VOA on the condition of anonymity because of potential scrutiny by the government.
"This sanction with its huge economic and travel limitations on IRGC is not limited to the unit itself. The IRGC is a multibillion dollar conglomerate economic cartel which controls organizations, companies and entities across the country and overseas. With this sanction, the fate of individuals and other companies who have business ties with it will be affected."
Analysts charge the sanctions will likely cross Iranian borders into other countries in the region where the IRGC has established influence and footprints.
Mike Pregent, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, told VOA the U.S. move would most likely be influential in draining the stream of support to militant groups such as the Houthis in Yemen and could push governments away from being Iranian proxies.
"This is a chance for Iraq to distant itself from Iran," Pregent said, adding that the Iranian IRGC has used Iraq's Popular Mobilization Forces to directly shape governance in Iraq.
At the same time, the designation would likely put countries that wish to establish balanced relations with the U.S. and Iran in a difficult position, according to some experts.
Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, said the U.S. sanctions would likely put immense pressure on Iraq and Lebanon, where pro-Iranian militants enjoy a lot of influence outside the military apparatus.
"It will certainly strengthen pro-Iran groups in Iraq calling for the expulsion of U.S. troops and, I believe, it will decrease U.S. influence, as Iran is not going anywhere, while Trump is cutting both troops and aid," she said.