In the meantime, though, the administration has declared the Islamic State territorially defeated and is planning a withdrawal of most of its troops from Syria, where the IRGC has a strong presence. Tillerson has left the State Department, and Pompeo, who has advocated a much tougher line against Iran, has joined. The State Department last week publicized declassified Pentagon figures, calling Iran responsible for the deaths of more than 600 U.S. service members in Iraq. “This accounts for 17 percent of all deaths of U.S. personnel in Iraq from 2003 to 2011,” said Brian Hook, the State Department’s special representative for Iran, at a State Department briefing last week. “This death toll is in addition to the many thousands of Iraqis killed by the IRGC’s proxies.”
A spokesman for Senator Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican who has been pushing for the designation for five years, wrote in an email: “Iran is trying to blackmail the U.S. by threatening even more terrorist attacks if we call out their ongoing terrorist attacks, but [Senator] Cruz believes we can’t accept that blackmail.” Addressing a question about possible risks to U.S. troops at a Monday press conference, Hook responded: “The IRGC has been threatening American troops almost since its inception … What endangers American troops in the Middle East is an IRGC that operates with impunity and has never had its ambitions checked in the Middle East.”
Depending on what exceptions apply to the new designation, it also potentially exposes U.S. troops to a different kind of risk: the possible need to coordinate with a group their government considers a terrorist organization. “In the battle of Tikrit against the Islamic State, the US Air Force provided air support to Major General Qassem Suleimani, the Quds Force, and the Iraqi Shia militias under Suleimani’s direct or indirect command,” Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington and an expert on the IRGC, wrote in an email. “In doing so, the US Air Force provided material support to a terrorist organization, a deed prohibited by the U.S. Treasury.”
Just as the United States was in de facto alignment with the IRGC against ISIS, Alfoneh pointed out, there will be another terrorist group that threatens both parties’ interests. “Sooner or later,” Alfoneh wrote, “the U.S. government will cooperate with the IRGC, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, to fight a real terrorist organization. How does the administration explain that to the public?”
Read: Trying to kill the Iran deal could end up saving it
Whatever the regional consequences of the designation, there’s a whole other set of domestic political consequences ahead of the 2020 campaign for the presidency. The Democratic National Committee has called for returning to the Iran deal Obama negotiated and Trump left; the more sanctions are layered on to the Iranian regime, the more complicated it becomes to unravel them in the event a Democrat wins the presidency and seeks to reenter the deal.