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Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, Commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, at a press conference in Tehran in 2012. Photo: Mohsen Shandiz/Corbis via Getty Images

The designation of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) imposes few if any new restrictions. As President Trump noted, though, it is technically an "unprecedented" action, since the label was intended for non-state actors.

The big picture: This amounts to just one more layer of opprobrium on top of Iran’s 1984 designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, the IRGC’s designation under separate counterterrorism authorities, and a long list of related sanctions. Because most countries and firms worried about U.S. sanctions have already left the Iranian market, it's unlikely to chill much international business.

Where it stands: Iran has already announced that it will designate the U.S. military as a terrorist organization — a similarly symbolic gesture. It may end there.

Yes, but: The real concern is that this designation will escalate the conflict between Washington and Tehran, in three possible ways.

  1. Iran has so far failed to take the bait as U.S. sanctions have expanded. They probably hope to stay that course, but the IRGC designation could trigger a policy change or at least provide a pretext for factions in Tehran looking for confrontation.
  2. Lower-level commanders and officials might take this rhetoric as instruction or permission for more aggressive action on the ground, leading to unintended escalations in Iraq, Syria, the Gulf or other places where both countries have military forces.
  3. Ambassador John Bolton and other hardliners are clearly frustrated by Iran’s tempered reaction to the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear accord. By remaining compliant with the deal, Iran has spared U.S. allies in Europe and elsewhere from having to to choose sides. But further provocations from the Trump administration would be harder for Tehran to ignore and could prompt a crisis.

Between the lines: U.S. partners forced by proximity to rub elbows with the IRGC — including the governments of Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon — might worry that unavoidable contacts could make them subject to U.S. sanctions, but enforcing any would require Washington to take further and ultimately self-defeating positions.

What to watch: It's possible the FTO designation is a sop to hardliners who failed to persuade the president to adopt a more aggressive posture. Or, as can't be ruled out in an administration that has not prioritized interagency policy review and decision-making, it could prove disconnected from other Iran policy decisions.

Jarrett Blanc is a senior fellow in the Geoeconomics and Strategy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Go deeper

Scoop: Trump-backed Perdue says he wouldn’t have certified Georgia 2020 results

Perdue at a December 2020 campaign event in Columbus, Ga. Photo: Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

Georgia gubernatorial candidate David Perdue wouldn’t have signed the certification of the state’s 2020 election results if he had been governor at the time, the former Senate Republican told Axios.

  • “Not with the information that was available at the time and not with the information that has come out now. They had plenty of time to investigate this. And I wouldn’t have signed it until those things had been investigated and that’s all we were asking for," he said.

Why it matters: There has been no evidence widespread fraud took place in Georgia's elections last year and the November results were counted three times, once by hand.

Beijing Olympics: These countries have announced diplomatic boycotts

Photo: Zhang Qiang/VCG via Getty Images

Several countries, including Canada and Australia, have announced they will join the U.S. in a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics to protest human rights abuses committed by China's government.

Driving the news: Leaders have faced pressure from human rights groups and others to boycott the Games, pointing to the ongoing genocide of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in China's Xinjiang region and other abuses.

Biden directs federal government to become carbon neutral by 2050

President Biden speaking to reporters outside of the White House on Dec. 8.

President Biden signed an executive order Wednesday that requires the federal government achieve multiple goals related to reducing its carbon emissions, including achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

Why it matters: Meeting the objectives of the order would require a massive investment by the federal government to buy electric vehicles, upgrade buildings and change how it procures electricity.