(CNSNews.com) – A renewed legislative push to have Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) designated as a “foreign terrorist organization” (FTO) returns a spotlight onto an issue which eight years ago split Hillary Clinton from her then-Senate colleagues Barack Obama, Joe Biden and John Kerry.
Legislation has been introduced in the House by Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), and in the Senate by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), calling on the secretary of state to designate the IRGC as an FTO under U.S. law – or provide the legal justification for not doing so.
The Obama administration opposes the move. An unnamed State Department official told the Free Beacon it does not believe the time is right to do so, that existing sanctions against the IRGC are sufficient.
When Congress considered a similar measure in 2007, Democratic Sens. Obama, Biden and Kerry all opposed it, while Clinton did not. A bipartisan amendment to defense authorization legislation, calling for the IRGC to be designated an FTO under U.S. law, passed by a 76-22 vote, but with Biden and Kerry voting no.
Obama, who was competing with Clinton at the time for Democratic presidential nomination, did not vote. But he did speak out against the measure, and criticized Clinton for voting in favor of “this reckless amendment.”
The 2007 amendment pointed to the IRGC’s role in the killing of U.S. troops in Iraq, an issue highlighted again just last week when declassified Pentagon data put a number to U.S. fatalities in Iraq attributed to Iranian-provided weapons.
The amendment’s critics, including Obama, argued that the Bush administration could use the language to justify a continued troop presence in Iraq by highlighting Iran’s actions there – or even to justify an attack on Iran as part of the war in Iraq.
Eight years later, Congress is again revisiting the question of FTO designation for the IRGC.
During a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing last week McCaul told Assistant Secretary for the Near East Anne Patterson he had sent a letter to the president calling for FTO designation for the IRGC, which he called “the terror arm of Iran.”
Asked her view on the matter Patterson said she was unsure and would look into it, but expressed doubt that the IRGC would meet the legal criteria for designation.
Under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), to qualify as an FTO a group must be based outside the U.S., be involved in terrorist activity, and must pose a threat to American nationals or to the national security (defined as national defense, foreign relations or economic interests) of the United States.
The legislation sponsored by Cruz and McCaul states that it is the sense of Congress that the IRGC does meet those criteria, and should therefore be designated.
In collaboration with Shi’ite allies in Lebanon, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, Iran – acting specifically through the IRGC and its overseas operations unit, the Qods Force – is suspected of having a hand in numerous deadly attacks against Americans, including the bombings of the 1983 U.S. Marine barracks and U.S. Embassy in Beirut, the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia, and the deaths of hundreds of U.S. military personnel in Iraq.
More recently, the U.S. in 2011 accused the IRGC-Qods Force of being behind a plot to carry out terror attacks on American soil, including the assassination of the Saudi ambassador in a Washington restaurant bombing that could have killed Americans in addition to the target.
The IRGC has come to increased prominence in recent months due to the force’s deepening involvement – and growing number of fatalities – in Syria, where it is fighting on behalf of the Assad regime.
The IRGC is also heavily engaged in the Iranian economy, including the banking, construction and energy sectors, and Iran experts say it stands to benefit significantly from the unfreezing of assets and ongoing easing of sanctions under the nuclear agreement reached with Iran last summer.
Under the nuclear deal, U.N. sanctions against the IRGC, Qods Force, and its commander, Gen. Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, will ultimately be lifted, although the administration stresses that U.S. sanctions will remain in place.
Cruz’ and McCaul’s bills require the secretary of state to determine, within 30 days of enactment, whether the IRGC meets the legal criteria for FTO designation. If not, the secretary of state should provide a “detailed justification as to which criteria have not been met.”
The Senate bill (S. 2094) was referred to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in late September. The House bill (H.R. 3646), which has 17 co-sponsors – two of them Democrats – was referred last week to the House Judiciary subcommittee on immigration and border security.