The US government recently announced on 8th April 2019 that the Iranian revolutionary guard will now be considered as a terrorist organization. Apart from the dangerous moral precedent of labelling recognized forces of recognized states as terrorist, this move has substantially increased both the instability and the violence in the Middle East. In reality, the game of “chicken” currently being played between the US government and its allies on one hand, and the Iran and its proxies on the other hand will most certainly lead to a snowballing escalation of violence.
The moral precedent of labelling the IRGC a terrorist organization is predictably dangerous
The day after the US government announced its plan to include the Iranian revolutionary guard on its list of terrorist organisations, Iran retaliated by issuing a statement whereby it returns the favour with regards to US troops. Predictably, this means that US troops stationed in the Middle East are now at risk of attacks by Iranian forces or Iranian-backed proxy forces. This is particularly troubling when one considers the vulnerability of US forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and to a certain extent in Saudi Arabia. It is likewise troubling when one considers that the categorization of entities as terrorist organisations has enabled a number of countries, among them Iran and US, to justify bypassing international law regarding both the “jus in bello” and more specifically the treatment of captured enemy combatants once the war has ended. In other words, through this reciprocal behaviour, US and Iranian forces risk no longer being protected by international law if captured.
Who dares move first? – playing “chicken” on a regional level will have grave consequences
US strategists will point out that such a move from their administration is in fact astute: the US military domination is unquestioned in today’s world. Thus, by labelling the IRGC a terrorist organisation, the US is “daring” the Iranian regime into either making a catastrophic move, or commence self-censorship out of fear of annihilation.
However, this strategy is extremely risky – for starters, it bolsters Iranian hardliners and could lead to power swinging towards more violent members of the Iranian parliamentary body who could indeed be tempted to disregard the previously careful path that Rohani or Khatami have trodden. Of course, any gung-ho US politician will simply state that this would be the perfect excuse to aggressively force a regime change in Iran as has been advocated previously by the current Secretary of State. However, one does not forcibly change the livelihoods of 80 million nationally-minded people easily and the US’ track record on the subject in Afghanistan (30 million people) and Iraq (30 million people) is poor.
Secondly, it forces a number of countries, most notably Russia but also to a lesser extent China, with having to side with Iran should any violence flare up. Put simply, we find ourselves in a similar situation as the European states did when Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated.
Defending US allies in the region needs careful planning – this move is the opposite
US strategists will equally be quick to point out that by labelling the IRGC a terrorist organisation, it will help legitimise Israel’s current aerial campaign against Iranian targets in Syria, and the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen against Iranian-backed Houthis. Quite apart from the fact that the IRGC will now have even less qualms in retaliating and ignoring the “jus in bello” in its ongoing fight against these two actors, other regional actors now find themselves in a very difficult situation: the Kurdish movements that have created links with both Israel and Iran throughout the campaigns led against ISIS and beyond now face being in the middle of a covert conflict in which they will have to take sides and inevitably pay the cost. Oman, until now a beacon of stability between Yemen, the Hormuz Straits, Saudi Arabia and Iran, will likewise be put in a very difficult situation should the clashes between the IRGC and its opponents flare up on its soil, at a time when Oman enters a period of instability and fragility that the Arab peninsula does not need, as the succession crisis of the Sultan Qaboos looms. Even Turkey will be caught in the crossfire.
Europe is now in an impossible situation
As a result of the US’ decision, the European powers now find themselves in an impossible situation. Should tensions boil over between the IRGC and its proxies and the US and its allies in the region, what will be Europe’s response? How will Europe credibly ask for calm and rationality to prevail when both sides will accuse the “old continent” of being either a traitor to NATO or a stooge to US interests? Being third party to another man’s game of “chicken” will only show the military and therefore political frailty of the European nations and the EU and can only weaken it in the short and mid-term.