Washington said Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps poses an "imminent" threat to Americans in Iraq
Washington (AFP) - The United States on Monday designated Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization, ramping up already far-reaching efforts to undermine the clerical government in Tehran -- which swiftly retaliated by calling US troops terrorists.
It is the first time that Washington has branded part of a foreign government a terrorist group, meaning that anyone who deals with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps could face prison in the United States.
President Donald Trump called the unit -- which has some 125,000 troops and vast interests across the Iranian economy -- Tehran's "primary means of directing and implementing its global terrorist campaign."
"This action will significantly expand the scope and scale of our maximum pressure on the Iranian regime," Trump said in a statement.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, addressing reporters, said that all businesses and banks around the world "now have a clear duty" to cut off all dealings that involve the Revolutionary Guards.
"The leaders of Iran are racketeers, not revolutionaries," Pompeo said.
The move comes on top of Trump's decision last year to pull the United States out of an international deal with Iran that was meant to lift crippling economic sanctions in return for the government allowing its nuclear technology to be restricted and kept under close supervision.
The United States has long debated the terrorist designation and has been encouraged to do so by Saudi Arabia and Israel, arch-rivals of Iran which enjoy close relationships with Trump.
The decision comes hours before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces re-election in tight polls. In a statement, he thanked his "dear friend" Trump.
- Swift retaliation -
Iran swiftly took retaliatory action. The Supreme National Security Council, in a statement carried by the official news agency IRNA, declared the United States to be a state sponsor of terrorism and both called the US Central Command and forces underneath it terrorist groups.
Part of America's vast military presence around the globe, CENTCOM's area of command covers multiple conflict zones and hotspots including Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and the Gulf.
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who recommended the CENTCOM designation, denounced the move against the Revolutionary Guards as a way to sway the Israeli election.
"A(nother) misguided election-eve gift to Netanyahu. A(nother) dangerous U.S. misadventure in the region," Zarif tweeted.
The Revolutionary Guards were formed after the 1979 Islamic revolution with a mission to defend the religious regime, in contrast to more traditional military units that protect borders.
Abroad, the Guards' prized Quds Force, named for the Arabic word for Jerusalem, supports Iranian allies including Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Lebanon's Hezbollah and militias from Iraq's Shiite majority.
At home, the Guards have amassed sweeping political and economic influence, with Brian Hook, the State Department's representative on Iran, citing estimates that they control up to half of the Iranian economy.
Pompeo and Hook said that 603 troops killed in Iraq since the United States invaded in 2003 -- or 17 percent of the total US death toll -- could be attributed to Iran.
The Revolutionary Guards were also at the forefront of assisting Iraqi forces in defeating Islamic State extremists.
- Criminalizing contact with Guards -
The United States has long mulled designating the Revolutionary Guards as terrorists but held off, fearing threats to US troops and questioning whether the move would do much to pressure a force already under a raft of sanctions.
US officials said the terrorist label, which takes effect on April 15, would make it a criminal offense in the United States to provide "material support" to the Revolutionary Guards, with violators subject to up to 20 years in prison.
Pompeo set his sights directly on Qassem Soleimani, the major general who leads the Quds Force.
"We are sending... a clear message to Iran's leaders, including Qassem Soleimani and his band of thugs, that the United States is bringing all pressure to bear to stop the regime's outlaw behavior," Pompeo said.
The United States insists that its goal is not regime change but several of Trump's top advisers have long been close to Iranian exiles seeking to topple the Islamic republic.
Critics in the United States said that the Trump administration was seeking to stir up a crisis that could lead to confrontation or at least push Iran to violate the 2015 nuclear accord. Europeans strongly support preserving the agreement and UN inspectors say that Iran remains in compliance.
"This is yet another dangerous escalation of conflict with Iran that is disturbingly reminiscent of the lead-up to the failed war in Iraq," said Tom Udall, a Democratic senator from New Mexico.
"The Trump administration is ratcheting up confrontation, undercutting diplomacy and putting American troops at risk," he said.