Trump's Iran terrorist designation is designed to lock in endless enmity | Trita Parsi

Branding the Revolutionary Guard Corps as terrorists serves Israel and Saudi Arabia’s interests but makes an Obama-style rapprochement by a future president more difficult

With the stroke of a pen, the Donald Trump administration declared more than 11 million Iranians – nearly one-seventh of the country’s population – terrorists. The unprecedented move to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps as a terrorist organization has rightfully raised concerns that the John Bolton-Mike Pompeo wing of the administration is pushing a clueless Trump closer to open conflict with Iran. But the greater risk is not the short-term impact of this reckless decision, but the way it will entrap future administrations – long after Trump has left the White House – in a no-win enmity with Iran.

The sad history of the US and revolutionary Iran cannot be understood solely from the perspective of these two countries alone. From the outset, it has been an enmity driven as much by the designs of other Middle East powers as by the passions of decision makers in Tehran and Washington. Both Israel and Saudi Arabia have for more than two decades feared that a US-Iran rapprochement would come at their expense and would deprive them of the favorable regional position American hegemony in the Middle East has provided them with.

Few American decisions, however, have been so blatantly designed to serve the interest of the leadership of Israel and Saudi Arabia and have so clearly contradicted any reasonable definition of US national interest as Trump’s unprecedented decision to designate the state military of Iran as a terrorist organization.

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Secretary Pompeo claims that this step is just a continuation of the US’s “maximum pressure campaign against the Iranian regime”. But that campaign is itself founded on the false premise that sanctions will force Iran to capitulate. George W Bush tried that approach. He failed. Barack Obama tried it. He too failed.

In fact, in both cases, American pressure was met with Iranian counter-pressure. In 2003, Iran had roughly 150 centrifuges and no stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU). By the time Bush left office, Iran had 8,000 centrifuges and 1,500kg of low-enriched uranium – enough to build a bomb. Five years into Obama’s presidency and his tightening of the Iran sanctions, Iran had 22,000 centrifuges and 10,000kg of LEU.

Obama wisely understood that the maximum pressure path eventually would lead to Iran getting a bomb or the US bombing Iran. It would not lead to Iran’s capitulation. So he shifted gears in secret negotiation with Iran in Oman and tried the unthinkable instead: compromise.

It worked. American flexibility elicited Iranian flexibility. Goodwill begot goodwill. Respect unclenched fists on both sides.

But the thaw in US-Iran relations gave birth to a panic in Riyadh and Tel Aviv that Iran’s nuclear advances never did.

While the maximum pressure campaign never could solve the nuclear issue, it could achieve Israel and Saudi Arabia’s true objective: to either push the US into war with Iran or to trap the US in a permanent state of enmity with that country. Both outcomes would ensure, they calculated, a shift in the regional balance of power in their favor and that their geopolitical rival Iran would be checkmated for the foreseeable future.

After all, it wasn’t Iran’s nuclear program that threatened them. Rather, it was Tehran’s willingness to reach a modus vivendi with Washington that terrified them.

Which is why the IRGC designation topped their wishlist (Netanyahu took credit for the decision on Twitter). Though the short-term dangers of this decision should not be dismissed – when Senator Rand Paul on Thursday failed to win Pompeo’s admission that the designation didn’t greenlight the targeting of the IRGC in Syria, he forcefully reminded the secretary that “You do not have our permission to go to war in Iran” – the longer-term implications are equally worrisome.

The US-Iran enmity is already institutionalized. A web of political and legal realities serve to make it unresolvable. Whenever Washington and Tehran have tried to overcome their differences, they have found themselves chained to the political and legal facts that prevent them from transcending the pain and grievances of their past.

The IRGC designation adds yet another, massive brick in this wall of mistrust separating the two. But unlike previous moves, this decision is next to irreversible mindful of the immense political capital required to reverse it. And without undoing it, a diplomatic breakthrough with Iran appears inconceivable.

This designation is designed to reduce the maneuverability of future US administrations and to effectively take peace off the table. It’s designed to make future presidents resigned to the idea that America is trapped in a permanent state of enmity with Iran – even though continuous hostility with that important country in no shape or form serves US national security.

The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, testifying before the Senate, was told by Senator Rand Paul: ‘You do not have our permission to go to war in Iran.’
The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, was told by Senator Rand Paul: ‘You do not have our permission to go to war in Iran.’ Photograph: Jeenah Moon/Reuters

Israel and Saudi Arabia, however, calculate that it serves their interests. And once again, Trump took their advice over that of the US intelligence community and military.

But as radical as this move is, it is less extreme than Obama’s decision to seek a win-win compromise with Iran. The Iran nuclear deal was a triumph of diplomacy. It squarely served US national interest. But it fundamentally contradicted America’s grand strategy and designs of hegemony in the Middle East. It signaled that America was willing to come to terms with Iran instead of seeking Tehran’s submission and punishment for having opposed Pax Americana. It was radical because it was a first step towards dismantling the unquestioned notion that America must dominate the Middle East – come what may.

Trump’s designation of the IRGC, on the other hand, does not contradict America’s hegemonic aspirations. And that’s where the deeper problem lies: America’s post-cold war approach to the Middle East does not exclude permanent enmities. It embraces them. It may appear radical, but it is a logical conclusion of a posture that dictates that America must dominate the region. Permanent enmities – and endless wars – are not a bug of this grand strategy; they are its most prominent feature.

To paraphrase Obama, it was not enough to end the Iraq war. The mindset behind it also had to be discarded. Similarly, it is not enough to prevent a costly, no-win enmity with Iran. The hegemonic aspirations that inevitably lead to forever wars and permanent enmities must also be replaced.

  • Trita Parsi is the author of Losing an Enemy – Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy


Trita Parsi

The GuardianTramp

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