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.
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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 itsforces 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.
The CIA, which also operates paramilitary forces in the region, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
But many in the Pentagon’s top leadership were clearly against Trump’s move.
The Pentagon resistance came mainly from Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and top civilian officials including John Rood, the Pentagon’s top policy official, and Kathryn Wheelbarger, the acting assistant defense secretary for international security affairs.
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, who is auditioning to be the permanent Pentagon chief, has not been a leading opponent.
“It’s never been from Shanahan. It’s always been from Rood and the chairman and Wheelbarger and her Iran director,” the senior defense official said.
Still, Trump’s decision is par for the course for a president who has bucked the advice of military leaders on numerous occasions — including when ordering the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and bycriticizing NATO allies.
While campaigning for president, Trump declared at one point: “I know more about [the Islamic State] than the generals do. Believe me.”
Last year he also told an interviewer that he knew more about NATO than his then-Pentagon chief, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, a retired general.
“Frankly, I like General Mattis,” Trump told CBS’ “60 Minutes.” “I think I know more about it than he does. And I know more about it from the standpoint of fairness, that I can tell you.”
Trump made it clear early on he wanted the U.S. military to get out of Syria, where it was fighting the Islamic State, but for much of the first half of his term so far, Trump held off on the pull-out, doubling down on the fight against the terrorist group, also known as ISIS.
But late last year, Trump shocked nearly all of Washington – in that case including hawkish aides such as Bolton and Pompeo — by suddenly announcing that the U.S. would leave Syria, where the fight against ISIS was still ongoing.
In the months since, Pentagon and other officials have managed to convince Trump to walk back his decision some; the U.S. is leaving at least several hundred troops in Syria for the time being, but it’s anyone’s guess when Trump may suddenly pull the plug once more.
Trump also has dismissed the traditional U.S. approach to NATO by questioning the value of the 70-year-old military alliance and at times refusing to commit to its core concept of mutual defense. Trump’s main beef with NATO is that many of its other member states do not spend enough on collective defense.
He publicly dismissed the alliance despite advice from then Defense Secretary Mattis, a retired general who resigned late last year after the Syria pullout decision and used his resignation letter to highlight the value of alliances.
When it comes to Iran, Trump has repeatedly clashed with military leaders. Mattis, for instance, supported the Iran nuclear deal but Trump nonetheless decided to pull the U.S. out of the international agreement, which lifted sanctions in exchange for restrictions on its nuclear program.
According to the Trump administration, Iran is responsible for the deaths of at least 603 American service members in Iraq since 2003. Iran’s government, including through the IRGC, has backed a range of militias in Iraq that are often at odds with U.S. troops.
Some analysts and others thus downplay the idea that designating the IRGC a terrorist group could make things worse for U.S. troops.
“The IRGC has already killed a few hundred U.S. troops and looks for opportunities to support and facilitate those proxy forces who also want to do harm to U.S. troops—so how much more at risk could U.S. troops be than they already are?” said Luke Coffey of the conservative Heritage Foundation, which generally supports Trump.
Aside from military concerns about potential Iranian retaliation against U.S. troops in places such as Iraq and Syria, there also are legal concerns about how enforceable the penalties associated with such designations can be. For one thing, the IRGC plays a major role in Iran’s economy, and many foreign companies, not to mention individuals, may wind up providing so-called material support to the IRGC even if they do not intend to, including by purchasing non-military goods.
Some hawkish anti-Iran voices in Washington are pushing Trump to do even more to isolate and weaken the Iranian regime, in the hopes that it will somehow collapse. But opponents of that hardline approach worry that the moves he’s making now will not destroy the regime, but will instead make it harder for the U.S. to use diplomacy to deal with Tehran in the future.