Mar 16, 2022 - World

Scoop: U.S. weighs deal to remove Iran's IRGC from terror blacklist

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei meets with leaders of the IRGC last January. Photo: Handout via Getty
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei meets with leaders of the IRGC last January. Photo: Handout via Getty

The Biden administration is considering removing Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from a terror blacklist in return for a public commitment from Iran to de-escalation in the region, three Israeli officials and two U.S. sources tell me.

Why it matters: An agreement to restore the 2015 nuclear deal is nearly complete, but Iran's demand that President Biden reverse Donald Trump's decision to designate the IRGC as a Foreign Terrorist Organization is a key remaining sticking point.

  • The IRGC is not only Iran's most feared military branch, it's also a powerful political and economic player. The terror designation means that even if Biden lifts nuclear sanctions to return to compliance with the deal, criminal penalties could still be imposed on anyone doing business with individuals or businesses connected to the IRGC.
  • But removing the designation is a political hot potato for Biden. It would create an uproar from Republicans and likely several Democrats in the Senate.

Between the lines: The IRGC designation is not directly related to the nuclear deal, and any decision would take the form of a separate bilateral understanding between the U.S. and Iran, according to the U.S. and Israeli sources.

  • One idea being discussed by the Biden administration would be a public announcement that the U.S. reserves the right to redesignate the IRGC if it determines that Iran did not follow through on its pledge to de-escalate in the region.
  • The Israeli officials say the Biden administration briefed the Israeli government that such possibilities are being considered but stressed that no decisions have been made.
  • The Israeli government is concerned about the idea, and in particular, the fact that the U.S. didn't demand specific commitments from Iran not to target the U.S. and its allies in the region, two senior Israeli officials tell me.

Behind the scenes: When former Vice President Mike Pence visited Israel last week, he claimed in meetings with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid that Biden planned to delist the IRGC in return for a more narrow commitment not to target Americans, two Israeli officials said.

  • When the Israelis checked this in Washington, they were told the Biden administration had discussed this possibility but ruled it out.
  • Asked about Pence's description, a senior State Department official told Axios: “It should not be a surprise to anyone that descriptions of our talks from critics not involved in the process are inaccurate." Pence’s team declined to comment.

State of play: The State Department official said no decision has been made on the IRGC designation and “any speculation to the contrary is simply uninformed."

  • Nevertheless, the official stressed that regardless, the IRGC will remain on a separate terror list and subject to numerous sanctions, and the U.S. will still have a "panoply of tools to counter Iran’s destabilizing activities."
  • Another senior U.S. official claimed that it would be "pure speculation" to talk about details of a deal that isn't complete yet, but added, "It’s clear that President Trump and Vice President Pence’s withdrawal and maximum pressure campaign have been a clear failure" because Iran has only increased its nuclear activity and regional aggression.

Worth noting: Trump's 2019 designation of the IRGC as an FTO was the first time a state entity was added to the list.

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