U.S. President Donald Trump's administration is deliberating over whether to designate two very different Islamist groups in the Middle East as foreign terrorist organizations. On Monday, the White House considered issuing an executive order to declare the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a terrorist group. The administration has since indefinitely delayed the order in response to concerns from U.S. defense and intelligence officials. A similar deliberation has been ongoing regarding the Muslim Brotherhood. The matter will doubtless come up again when Trump meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington on Feb. 15.
If the administration decides to follow through with the order, it could reassure the U.S. allies in the Middle East that feel most threatened by the Muslim Brotherhood and IRGC. At the same time, however, the move would risk destabilizing other partnerships in the region. More important, it would do little to curtail the activities of either group.
The IRGC is one of Iran's primary military bodies. Developed as an alternative to the ousted shah's army in the wake of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the IRGC has come to occupy an important role in the Islamic republic. It has ties with thousands of businesses in the country — such as Khatam al-Anbia, a major player in Iran's energy sector — and influence over Tehran's national security and defense policy. Its sway outside Iran's borders is equally impressive. As the main executor of Iran's asymmetric offensive policy, the IRGC conducts cyberattacks, harasses U.S. Navy vessels in the Persian Gulf and publicly proclaims Israel and America as enemies. In addition, the IRGC's special operations unit, the Quds Force, has trained proxy forces and militias across the Middle East, including Yemen's Houthi rebels and, in years past, the Palestinian militant group Hamas. The IRGC's activities in the Middle East — which also include supporting Syrian President Bashar al Assad's government and weighing in on Iraqi and Lebanese politics — haven't exactly endeared it to Washington over the years. In the Trump administration's view, however, Iran acting through the military force represents the primary threat to security and stability in the Middle East.
Declaring the IRGC a terrorist designation could make it more difficult for its affiliated companies to do business with foreign firms, depending on how Washington phrases its executive order or legislation and how intently it plans to enforce the measure. But it would not have much effect on the IRGC's activities in the Middle East, nor would it undercut the force's ability to project power across the region. If anything, labeling the IRGC a terrorist organization would probably energize Iran's hard-line politicians by reinforcing their claims that the United States is Iran's enemy — just in time for a presidential election, no less. The designation, moreover, could heighten tensions between U.S.-backed forces and Iranian-backed forces in the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
Using a terrorist organization label to limit the Muslim Brotherhood will prove even more challenging for Washington. The Sunni organization was started in 1928 in Egypt with the mission to imbue state law with the teachings of Islamic law. Since its founding, the Muslim Brotherhood has spawned dozens of affiliate movements and chapters across the Middle East and North Africa, some — such as Hamas — more violent than others. Its influence today is so pervasive that by slapping a terrorist designation against the group, Washington would in effect be applying the label to all Sunni Islamists throughout the region. Furthermore, as the Muslim Brotherhood has evolved over the years, most governments in the Middle East have grown wary of its vision to reform the state, by violence if necessary, and have taken measures to contain the group in its various forms. The governments in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have even banned the organization in their countries. Like the IRGC, however, the Muslim Brotherhood has thrived under pressure, regardless of its legal status. If these strict prohibitions couldn't stop the Muslim Brotherhood's activities in the Middle East, it is hard to imagine that the United States' terrorist label would, even if Riyadh, Cairo and Abu Dhabi would celebrate the move.
By trying to sanction the organization, though, Washington would likely cause alarm for some of its most important allies in the Middle East. In Jordan, for instance, the group's local branch has gained considerable public support, putting the country's monarchy in a tricky position. If the United States deemed the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, people in Jordan may take to the streets in protest, a significant risk given the kingdom's delicate security landscape. Turkey, meanwhile, will urge Washington to reconsider its stance on the group. After all, the country has harbored the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood since it was removed from power in Cairo in 2013, and Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has supported the group and its affiliates across the region as a critical extension of its foreign policy. Even Israel, which would welcome the IRGC's terrorist organization designation, may caution the United States against applying the label to the Muslim Brotherhood. Most Palestinian Islamist groups took inspiration from the Muslim Brotherhood or developed as offshoots of the organization, and calling it a foreign terrorist organization would probably galvanize its supporters in the Palestinian territories — something Israel would rather avoid. Beyond these concerns, the leaders of these countries fear that the United States' designation could encourage younger and more radicalized members of Sunni Islamist groups toward extremism.
The IRGC and the Muslim Brotherhood are fundamentally different organizations. But both are umbrella organizations with so many moving parts that effectively sanctioning them is a tall order. And unlike the five dozen groups currently on the United States' list of foreign terrorist organizations, these are sprawling, multilayered organizations with outlets across many countries. Though the results of labeling either group a foreign terrorist organization would vary from the other, neither designation is likely to achieve its desired effect.