The Bush administration's move to blacklist Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps as a "terrorist" organization is a new salvo in a broader effort to choke off funding to Iranian elements accused of developing nuclear weapons and fomenting violence in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East.
At the same time, it is intended to send a message to countries doing business in Iran that the United States is serious about isolating Tehran and is willing to slap sanctions on companies that continue to trade with Iran even if the United Nations is not, according to U.S. officials.
A decision in principle has been made to name at least parts of the Revolutionary Guard a "specially designated global terrorist" group under an executive order signed by President Bush in 2001 as part of larger post-Sept. 11 measures to fight extremism, the officials said.
Debate continues over whether to designate all or just part of the corps, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the determination, which must be approved by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, is not finalized.
The move would be the first such designation of a foreign government entity and would cut the designees off from the U.S. financial system and freeze assets that it, its members or subsidiaries have in U.S. jurisdictions. It would also allow the Treasury to move against firms subject to U.S. law that transact with the group.
It remains unclear when the step will be formally announced but officials said it has been weighed for months as the United States has lost patience with Iran amid charges the guard corps is supplying weapons to Shi'ite insurgents in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan and as international efforts to shut down the Iranian nuclear program have bogged down.
The designation will mean that Rice has found that the Revolutionary Guard Corps "has committed, or poses a significant risk of committing, acts of terrorism that threaten the security of U.S. nationals or the national security, foreign policy, or economy of the United States," according to the executive order.
The impending move serves the administration's goal of ratcheting up pressure on Tehran, European and Asian companies with interests in Iran, and the U.N. Security Council, where a new sanctions resolution on the nuclear issue has languished under Chinese and Russian objections.
The news broke on the eve of a three-day Middle East trip by the State Department's third-ranking diplomat, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns, who has been the point man on Iranian sanctions issues.
Burns is meeting with Israeli officials in Jerusalem today to discuss a $30-billion, 10-year U.S. military aid package for the Jewish state and regional security issues, "including the challenge posed by Iran," the department said in a statement on Tuesday.
Israeli concerns about Iran and its nuclear program are well known and the sanctions to be imposed against the Revolutionary Guard, its subsidiaries and business partners will likely be welcomed there.
Yet, the preliminary decision to blacklist the corps comes as the United States and Iran have begun a tentative, if yet unsuccessful, engagement on Iraqi security issues.
The U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, has met twice with his Iranian counterpart in recent months for landmark talks at which the two sides agreed to continue discussions although no progress has been discerned by U.S. officials.
The Guard, which operates outside Iran's conventional army with its own air, naval and land wings, is known to have extensive business interests and investments in Iran, but the extent of its holdings outside the country is not clear.
U.S. tightens Iran clampdown with terror designation for Guard