Speaking in a televised address delivered from the White House in which he said he was refusing to recertify the Iran nuclear deal, the President said he was authorising the US Treasury to sanction the guards (IRGC) as supporters of terrorism.
The US’s decision not to certify Iran’s compliance with the deal hammered out by Barack Obama's administration and signed in 2015, had been long trailed in advance. However, the move to impose sanctions on the IRGC, a branch of Iran's army formed after the 1979 revolution and closely aligned with the nation's religious leadership, was not anticipated. Indeed, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had previously told reporters this would not happen.
“We hope that these new measures directed at the Iranian dictatorship will compel the government to re-evaluate its pursuit of terror at the expense of its people,” said Mr Trump.
Moments after Mr Trump completed his address, the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control declared that the IRGC had been labelled under terrorism legislation.
“The IRGC has played a central role to Iran becoming the world’s foremost state sponsor of terror. Iran’s pursuit of power comes at the cost of regional stability, and Treasury will continue using its authorities to disrupt the IRGC’s destructive activities,” said Treasury Secretary Stevenc Mnuchin.
“We are designating the IRGC for providing support to the IRGC Quds Force, the key Iranian entity enabling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s relentless campaign of brutal violence against his own people, as well as the lethal activities of Hizballah, Hamas, and other terrorist groups.”
He added: “We urge the private sector to recognise that the IRGC permeates much of the Iranian economy, and those who transact with IRGC-controlled companies do so at great risk.”
The decision by the Trump administration to sanction the IRGC was revealed shortly ahead of Mr Trump’s speech by Buzzfeed, which said given the extensive role the guard plays in Iranian society, could have wide-ranging impacts.
“This is reckless beyond the extreme,” Barbara Slavin, an Iran expert at the Atlantic Council, told the news site.
“The reason being is that to designate the armed forces of another country as terrorists is to invite retaliation. Would the designation mean that US drone attacks on IRGC personnel are fair game? If so, expect to see Iranian proxies start killing US military personnel again in Iraq or in Afghanistan or Syria.”
The Trump administration made clear that while it was sanctioning the IRGC, it was not adding it to the US’s formal list of foreign terrorist organisation. Reports said that doing so would have forced the US to take even more steps against the group, something Mr Tillerson said would be problematic.
Yet Iran spelled out it was deeply unhappy with any moves by the US to impose sanctions on the IRGC.
Ahead of Mr Trump’s speech, Iran’s foreign ministry said in a statement that the the guards were the “symbol of power and defenders of security”.
“Any move against the Armed Forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran, including the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, will be met with Iran’s fitting and strong response,” said the statement, according to state-owned broadcaster Press TV.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Mr Trump had been scornful of the agreement struck by the US, Iran, Russia, China, France, Germany and the UK. He repeatedly said it was a “terrible deal”.
In his speech, he asserted that he was standing by his assessment of the arrangement.
“Today I am announcing our strategy along with several major steps we're taking to confront the Iranian regime’s hostile actions and to ensure that Iran never - and I mean never - acquires a nuclear weapon,” he said.
While Mr Trump’s actions did not immediately pull the US out of the agreement aimed at curbing any nuclear weapon ambitions harboured by Iran, they mean the US Congress now has 60 days to decide whether to reimpose economic sanctions on Tehran that were lifted under the pact.
Speaking to reporters afterwards, Mr Trump said if Congress did not come up with satisfactory changes to the nuclear deal in a “very short” period of time, he was willing to terminate it.
“We’ll see what happens over the next short period of time,” he said, according to the Associated Press.
In Europe, the EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the deal was working and could not be terminated by any leader, including Mr Trump.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said in own address, that Mr Trump’s comments were baseless. He said while the US claimed to be seeking to counter the use of nuclear weapons, it was the only country to have used them.
“Tonight, it became clear the US is against the people of the region, against the people of Iran,” he said. “But the nation of Iran will never kneel down, the nation of Iran will never give up.”
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