U.S. media are reporting that the United States will soon designate Iran's hard-line Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) a foreign terrorist organization, which would be the first time Washington has given that label to the military unit of another country.
The Wall Street Journal and Reuters, citing U.S. officials, reported on April 5 that that Washington could add the IRGC on its Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs) list as early as April 8.
The issue has been the subject of speculation for several years.
The United States has designated the IRGC’s external branch -- the Quds Force -- and a number of individuals and entities associated with the organization as terrorist, but not the IRGC as a whole.
The IRGC has been involved in enforcing Islamic codes and crushing dissent at home, experts say, while taking part in covert operations, arms smuggling, and other efforts aimed at expanding Iran's influence abroad. It answers directly to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The WSJ said national-security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are strong proponents of the move, asserting that it would help Washington crack down on businesses in Europe and elsewhere controlled by the IRGC.
But critics and some Pentagon officials have said the move could open U.S. military and intelligence officials to similar actions by unfriendly foreign governments.
The WSJ said General Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the CIA oppose the move, although there were no comments from either.
A senior Iranian lawmaker said on April 6 that in response Iran may put the U.S. military on its own terror list.
"If the Revolutionary Guards are placed on America's list of terrorist groups, we will put that country's military on the terror blacklist next to Daesh," Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, the head of parliament's national security committee, said on Twitter, using an alternate name for the Islamic State (IS) extremist group.
IRGC chief General Mohammad Ali Jafari made the same warningin 2017 when he said Tehran would "consider the American army to be like [the extremist group] Islamic State all around the world" if Washington blacklisted the IRGC.
At the time, Iranian President Hassan Rohani said that a blacklisting of the IRGC would be a "mistake beyond mistake."
The WSJ quoted Jason Blazakis, who served until last year as director of the State Department’s Counterterrorism Finance and Designations Office, as saying that “the designation of IRGC as a Foreign Terrorist Organization [FTO] is precedent-setting.”
“Never before has the FTO sanctions tool been directed at a state body. The future ramifications of this decision will be profound,” he said.
The IRGC has a force of some 100,000 personnel and runs Tehran’s ballistic missile programs, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service has said.
The IRGC’s powerful Quds Force, which conducts foreign operations in the Middle East, has arranged weapons deliveries and advised pro-Iranian militias in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere.
Last October, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain -- both bitter rivals of Iran -- added the IRGC and senior officers from the Quds Force to their lists of people and organizations suspected of involvement in terrorism.
Saudi security services said Qassem Soleimani, commander of the IRGC Quds Force, was on the list together with Quds Force officers Hamed Abdollahi and Abdul Reza Shahlai.
In 2011, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on the three amid allegations that Soleimani, Abdollahi, and Shahlai were linked to a failed plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia's former ambassador to the United States, Adel Al-Jubeir.
Iran at the time dismissed the accusations as false and demanded an apology from Washington.
With reporting by The Wall Street Journal and Reuters