You wouldn't know it from the media coverage surrounding President Trump's October 13th speech on Iran, but the most notable element of the Administration's new, "comprehensive" strategy toward the Islamic Republic isn't its plan to revisit the 2015 nuclear deal formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Of course, President Trump's decision to formally "decertify" that agreement should have come as a surprise to no one. During last year's presidential election, candidate Trump campaigned heavily on his opposition to the Obama administration's signature foreign policy achievement. And, since taking office in January, Mr. Trump has consistently maintained that the deal concluded two years ago between Iran and the P5+1 powers—the U.S., UK, Russia, China, France and Germany—is deeply damaging to American national security interests. That his White House would begin to rethink it, therefore, was simply a matter of time.
Rather, the most notable aspect of the Administration's new approach toward Iran is its plan for a full-scale assault on the regime's most powerful strategic asset: the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
"The Revolutionary Guard is the Iranian Supreme Leader's corrupt personal terror force and militia," the President outlined in his October 13th remarks. "It has hijacked large portions of Iran's economy and seized massive religious endowments to fund war and terror abroad." Indeed, the IRGC today is arguably Iran's most important economic actor, in control of numerous companies and corporate entities that stretch across virtually every sector of the Islamic Republic's economy.
This dominant position, in turn, has allowed Iran's clerical army to engage in a broad range of nefarious activities, among them the arming of regional rogues like Syria's Bashar al-Assad and the training and equipping of radical groups ranging from Lebanon's Hezbollah to Iraq's Shi'a militias. This is why targeting the IRGC has emerged as an essential component of the Trump administration's efforts to "counter the regime's destabilizing activity and support for terrorist proxies in the region."
Doing so, in fact, is a matter of U.S. law. This summer, as part of new sanctions simultaneously levied against Russia, Iran and North Korea, Congress mandated that the new Administration comprehensively blacklist the IRGC under a key post-September 11th counter-terrorism instrument known as Executive Order 13224. The Trump administration's new strategy will put this requirement into practice.
The first step in this regard, the President made clear, will be to "sanction the entire Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps for its support for terrorism and to apply sanctions to its officials, agents, and affiliates." Doing so will inevitably have an enormous impact on Iran's financial fortunes, because the IRGC controls holdings and companies that cumulatively make up one third or more of the country's national economy.
That, however, is only the beginning. To truly target the IRGC, the Trump administration will need to adopt a broader approach that alters America's rules of engagement toward the IRGC and the proxies it assists, as well as an informational campaign designed to discredit the group domestically among the Iranian people.
Iran's government, for its part, is already preparing for these policies—and seeking to discourage them. Iranian officials have warned publicly that blacklisting the IRGC would be seen as tantamount to an act of war on the part of the United States. In that event, "the Revolutionary Guards will consider the American army to be like [the] Islamic State [terrorist group] all around the world, particularly in the Middle East," IRGC Commander Mohammad Ali Jafari has threatened.
Such threats should be taken seriously in Washington. But so, too, should the reason for the growing unease now evident in Tehran. Iran's ayatollahs have long viewed the Revolutionary Guards as a key strategic asset of their radical, unrepresentative regime. Today, they are beginning to realize that—under the proper pressure from the United States—it could become a distinct liability.