President Donald Trump has declared on more than one occasion that he’s smarter than America’s military leaders.
And with his unprecedented decision Monday to designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist group, he’s setting up another test of that thesis.
Trump chose to overrule the Pentagon after National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo advised that the top brass’ warnings about risks to U.S. troops are overblown, several officials with direct knowledge of the deliberations told POLITICO.
The president’s move came despite Pentagon officials’ warnings that it could lead to retaliatory attacks against U.S. troops by Iranian-backed forces in the Middle East and threats from Iranian leaders that U.S. troops could face “consequences.”
“Like most things Iran-related, DoD opposed,” said a senior defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe ongoing tensions between the White House National Security Council, which has mounted a “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, and a Pentagon brass that has cautioned against unnecessary provocations.
Senior military leaders used the same rationale this winter to try to resist the decision to designate an Iran-backed Iraqi Shiite militia group operating in Iraq known as Harakat al-Nujaba as a terrorist group.
After no retaliation resulted, the White House “pushed back hard” against Pentagon arguments that designating the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps would pose a risk to U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria, said the senior defense official.
“It was pretty much a fait accompli from Pompeo and Bolton, and DoD basically got rolled over,” added a former administration official familiar with the deliberations who also insisted on anonymity. “I think the NSC’s read is that DoD’s faking it, that there isn’t a real risk. That’s been an ongoing theme with Bolton with respect to all things Iran.”
The IRGC, a paramilitary arm of the Iranian military, has been blamed for a series of terrorist attacks around the world dating back decades.
Its formal designation as a terrorist group is the first time the United States has labeled an official segment of another government as a terrorist group. Such designations, which carry a more robust set of economic sanctions against personnel and those with financial ties to the organization, typically are reserved for non-state actors.
In response to Monday’s decision, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif asked Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to declare U.S. Central Command, the American military headquarters responsible for the Middle East, a terrorist organization, Iranian state-run media reported.
The Pentagon would not say whether it had made any adjustments or issued any new warnings to its forces deployed in the region. “As a matter of policy, we do not discuss adjustments to force protection levels or measures for operational security reasons,” a spokesperson said.