- The Trump Administration has designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization, marking the first time the U.S. has given the designation to part of a foreign government.
- This choice has received criticism from military leaders and the intelligence community, as it could set a dangerous precedent for U.S. foreign relations.
- Iran responded by classifying U.S. Central Command as a terrorist organization and promising further retaliation.
IRGC Designated As Terrorist Organization
The Trump administration announced Monday that the United States was designating Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization. The unprecedented move marks the first time the U.S. has ever named a part of another country’s government a foreign terrorist organization.
Iran’s IRGC is a military unit that was originally created after the Iranian Revolution in 1979 as security for Iran’s religious rulers. Since that time, the IRGC has become Iran’s most powerful security organization.
The IRGC has an estimated 125,000 personnel that compose army, navy, and air units. They also has control over Iran’s ballistic missiles and nuclear programs.
The IRGC owns a huge network of businesses that range from oil and gas to construction and telecommunication, essentially giving the unit unlimited political influence in business, real estate, and other sectors of the economy.
The U.S. blames the IRGC for facilitating the deaths of U.S. service member in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East, because they have financed, trained, and given weapons to terrorist networks.
What Does This Mean?
In a statement released by the White House, Donald Trump said, “The IRGC is the Iranian government’s primary means of directing and implementing its global terrorist campaign.”
“This action will significantly expand the scope and scale of our maximum pressure on the Iranian regime,” said Trump, “This action sends a clear message to Tehran that its support for terrorism has serious consequences.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also addressed the situation in a press briefing, where he further elaborated on the reasoning behind the decision.
“We’re doing it because the Iranian regime’s use of terrorism as a tool of statecraft makes it fundamentally different from any other government,” Pompeo said. “This historic step will deprive the world’s leading state sponsor of terror the financial means to spread misery and death around the world.”
Pompeo also said that the designation will allow the IRGC to, “Take its rightful place on the same list as terror groups its supports.”
With the new designation, many are wondering what the label entails.
Much like Trump said, the designation, which is set to go into effect next week, will give the U.S. a huge scope of actions they can take against Iran. This includes imposing significant economic sanctions and travel bans on the IRGC and any organizations, companies, or individuals that might have ties to it.
It will also allow the Trump administration to bring criminal charges against the IRGC and any foreign officials that aid them.
Opposition From Military & Intelligence Officials
While the designation of the IRGC as a terrorist organization is new, it is something that has been debated for years because it is highly controversial in the military and intelligence communities.
The Trump administration has championed the move as a step forward in cracking down on Iran, but top Pentagon and C.I.A. officials strongly oppose the designation.
They argue that it is too strong of a hardline, and could allow Iranian officials to retaliate and justify dangerous and deadly actions against U.S. personnel abroad, especially Special Operations units and paramilitary units that work under the C.I.A.
The Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies are also concerned that the designation would prohibit all contact with foreign officials who may have met with or communicated with Guard personnel – a move that could severely damage diplomatic relations in the region.
U.S. military and intelligence officials also oppose the designation because it sets a dangerous precedent that other countries could use against the U.S.
Matt Levitt, the director of the counterterrorism program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the move could prompt Russia and China to start designating U.S. agencies by taking the same actions against the U.S. that the U.S. is taking against Iran.
Others, including an interagency lawyers group, have said the designation is too vague and broad. Some U.S. officials are saying the terrorist designation could include 11 million people, according to the New York Times.
Due to the fact that the IRGC itself is only about 125,000 of that number, the amount of people and organizations that have “ties” to the IRGC under the broad definition could be disproportionately targetted, including U.S. allies.
The Iraq Problem
For example, the designation will likely apply to officials in Iraq, which is a key U.S. ally in the region.
Iraq shares a border with Iran, and the two countries are major trading partners. Senior Iraqi officials are against the designation because it could impose travel bans and sanctions on some lawmakers in the government who have ties to Iranian officials.
U.S. officials are also worried that the move could encourage Iraqi parliamentarians to limit the movements and actions of 5,000 U.S. troops who are based in Iraq. This plan has been proposed before and is very popular in Iraq’s parliament.
If Iraq’s parliament felt as though the U.S. is unfairly restricting them, they could easily retaliate against U.S. troops in their country.
Additionally, U.S. troops and diplomats could be banned from contact with Iraqi authorities who interact with the IRGC and can give the U.S. important intel. That could complicate and even endanger U.S. operations in the region, and will most likely complicate U.S. efforts to stop a resurgence of ISIS.
“This isn’t about taking a tough approach to Iran’s support for terrorism,” said Jeffrey Prescott, a former senior Middle East director at the White House National Security Council, “Rather, it will put our service members in Iraq and throughout the region at additional risk with nothing to show in return.”
Prescott also argued that the backlash against the U.S. will be way worse than any potential benefits, saying:
“There is a reason that successive administrations have held off designating the I.R.G.C. as a terrorist organization, and why many of Trump’s own military and intelligence officials are said to be highly opposed to the move: The potential blowback vastly outweighs the benefits.”
Iran has already begun its retaliate against the U.S. designation.
Following yesterday’s announcement, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), which is a state-run news source in Iran, reported that Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called for Central Command to be deemed a terrorist organization, writing:
“Zarif in its letter referred to the US military forces’ covert and open support for the terrorist groups in the region and their direct interference in terror activities and offered the Supreme National Security Council to enlist CENTCOM in its terror list.”
According to Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) declared the U.S. a “terrorist government,” and blacklisted CENTCOM.
Fars also reported this morning that Iran’s parliament ratified a bill that stated:
“All US military, security and intelligence forces active in West Asia and all real and legal persons representing them in West Asia region will be declared as terrorist and any financial, technical, training and service and logistical assistance to this group of forces is considered as collaboration in terrorist acts.”
The bill also aims to strengthen the IRGC.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who is also the head of the SNSC, responded angrily to the designation in a televised statement.
“You want to use terrorist groups as tools against the nations of the region,” said Rouhani.“You are the leader of world terrorism.”
Other leaders in the Iranian government have threatened reciprocal action against the U.S. if they actually enforce the designation, including Iran’s Defense Minister and the IRGC General Commander.
The Trump Connection
Some people in both the U.S. and Iran have criticized the move as an effort to help Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the day before the Israeli election.
Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif referred to the move as an “election-eve gift to Netanyahu” in a tweet.
Netanyahu himself seemed to reinforce this idea, thanking Trump for this decision in a tweet.
Others have criticized Trump for a different reason.
Back in 2017, The New Yorker published an extensive investigative report that discovered the Trump Organization had been involved in building Trump Tower Baku a hotel in Azerbaijan.
According to the report, the hotel never opened, and was found “to be a corrupt operation engineered by oligarchs tied to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.”
Currently, it seems like Iran will take action against the U.S. if the designation does take effect, which is it set to do in about a week.
See what others are saying: (Washington Post) (NPR) (Fox News)
China Rushes to Build New Hospital as Coronavirus Spreads
- Chinese authorities announced plans to build a 1,000-bed hospital in Wuhan by Feb. 3 to treat patients of a deadly new virus that has killed at least 26 people.
- More than 800 cases of the never-before-seen strain of the coronavirus have been detected.
- The majority of the cases are in China, though some have been found in other countries, including the United States.
- Officials hope the new hospital will help alleviate some of the pressure on China’s healthcare system, which has been overwhelmed in the wake of the outbreak.
Race to Build Hospital
In the wake of the new coronavirus outbreak that has killed at least 26 people, China announced plans on Friday to quickly build a 1,000-bed hospital to treat patients of the epidemic.
The hospital is being constructed in Wuhan, where the deadly “2019-nCOV” virus originated and is scheduled to be completed by Feb. 3. Images and video from Chinese media show dozens of workers preparing the site.
China’s healthcare system has been strained by the outbreak. At least eight hospitals across Wuhan have called for protective medical gear donations, according to the Associated Press, citing notices online. Video footage has emerged showing health facilities packed with people desperate for help.
“I am scared because this is a new virus and the figures are alarming,” an unnamed doctor told BBC. “The hospitals have been flooding with patients, there are thousands, I haven’t seen so many before.”
The expedited Wuhan hospital is reminiscent of another project that China undertook almost two decades ago. In 2003, when the nation was swept up by the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus that spread to 28 other countries and killed nearly 800 people, a hospital was built from scratch in Beijing in just under a week.
The Wuhan structure is modeled off the Xiaotangshan SARS hospital in Beijing and is being made from prefabricated buildings that help with fast assembly.
What is the Coronavirus?
The outbreak causing all the panic is a novel coronavirus — a strain of the coronavirus that has never been seen before. According to the World Health Organization, coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to more severe ailments. SARS is a member of this family.
Coronaviruses can be transmitted between people and animals. The novel coronavirus was suspected to have come from a seafood and live animal market in Wuhan, which has since been closed for disinfection. The new strain is particularly intimidating because it is not yet known how it affects people or how to treat it.
At least 12 Chinese cities near the center of the outbreak have been placed on a travel lockdown to prevent further spreading of the virus, affecting roughly 35 million residents. The lockdown comes just ahead of one of China’s most important holidays, Lunar New Year, throwing a wrench in many people’s celebration plans.
More than 800 cases of the virus have been detected and a few have been found in countries beyond China, including the United States. On Thursday, the World Health Organization said the new virus has not yet reached a level that makes it a global health emergency.
See what others are saying: (Wall Street Journal) (Guardian) (The Washington Post)
Brexit Officially Becomes Law in the United Kingdom
- British Parliament passed a final Brexit withdrawal agreement on Wednesday.
- The following day, Queen Elizabeth gave the bill her royal assent, a formality that turns a bill into law.
- While the European Parliament is set to make the U.K.’s divorce from the European Union official next week, the U.K. still has a long journey ahead in laying out a new relationship with the EU and countries like the United States.
Brexit Becomes Law
After a bitter three and a half year struggle that resulted in the resignation of two prime ministers, protests, elections, and multiple delays, the United Kingdom has officially signed a Brexit withdrawal agreement.
Queen Elizabeth gave her royal assent to the bill on Thursday, a formality that gave the agreement the rule of law. Her signature came after parliament passed the agreement Wednesday evening.
In December, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party gained an 80 seat majority in Parliament’s elected lower house, the House of Commons. The massive win was seen as a mandate that the United Kingdom wanted to divorce itself from the European Union, and Johnson’s victory gave him the ability to pass the withdrawal agreement through the Commons with ease in early January.
The bill was then sent to the non-elected upper house, the House of Lords. On Tuesday, the Lords passed the bill back to the Commons with several amendments attached. Notably, one of those amendments included a provision that would have protected the rights of refugee children to be reunited with their parents if their parents were in the U.K. post-Brexit.
On Wednesday, the Commons used its majority to reject those amendments and tossed the bill back to the Lords. The Lords, lacking a majority to pass the amendments, passed the bill to prevent the U.K. from missing its current Jan. 31 deadline.
Before the U.K. officially leaves the EU, however, the EU’s parliament will also need to vote on a final approval of the withdrawal agreement. That vote is expected to happen Jan. 29, and like the Queen’s royal assent, this stage is also largely being viewed as a formality, with it easily expected to pass.
When it does, the U.K. will officially end its 40-year relationship with the EU.
Reaction to Brexit’s Passage
Unlike the raucous and theatrical debate normally associated with Brexit, the withdrawal agreement’s final passage was largely by the numbers and met with little resistance.
Thursday, when Deputy Speaker Nigel Evans announced in the Commons that the Queen had given her royal assent, only a handful of members of parliament either threw cheers or jeers. Likely, this is a consequence of December’s sweeping elections.
However, that doesn’t mean MP’s and other lawmakers haven’t stifled their strong feelings for the agreement’s passage.
Just after the royal assent announcement, Scottish MP Ian Blackford said the U.K. is facing a “constitutional crisis” because the legislatures in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland don’t support Brexit.
On Wednesday, member Alf Dubs—who had proposed the child refugee amendment—expressed his frustration on Twitter.
“It is bitterly disappointing that after a victory in the Lords, the government have voted down my amendment in the Commons,” he said. “What could be more humane than asking that unaccompanied child refugees stranded in Europe be able to join relatives in this country?”
To note, one of the reasons Dubs is so passionate about the amendment is because he came to the U.K. as a child to escape Nazi persecution shortly before the start of the Second World War.
On the other hand, on Wednesday, after Parliament passed the withdrawal agreement, Johnson said in a statement, “At times it felt like we would never cross the Brexit finish line, but we’ve done it.”
“Now we can put the rancour and division of the past three years behind us and focus on delivering a bright, exciting future – with better hospitals and schools, safer streets and opportunity spread to every corner of our country,” he added.
What Happens Once the Divorce Becomes Official?
Following next week’s expected divorce, the U.K. will begin an 11-month transition period with the EU that is currently scheduled to end on January 1, 2021.
During that time, it will continue to follow most of the EU’s rules, but it won’t actually have any decision-making power in the EU.
The U.K. and the EU will also continue to hash out details of what their relationship will look like after that transition period. For example, that includes things like an ambitious free-trade deal, agriculture, and security.
As for negotiations, those are expected to start either sometime next month or in early March, but like how Brexit saw multiple extensions, a lot of EU officials believe this transition period will also need to be extended. Many believe 11 months is too short of a time frame to completely work out all of the details. Johnson, however, has refused to agree to any extensions.
At the same time, Johnson has also been vocal about getting a free-trade deal with the U.S. While in Davos at the World Economic Forum, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin also indicated the U.S.’s desire for a trade deal, saying, “It’s an absolute priority of President Trump and we expect to complete that within this year.”
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross also said that a trade deal shouldn’t be too hard because the U.S. and the U.K. have similar economies.
But the U.S. and U.K. are also currently in a disagreement over a so-called “tech tax.” That riff stims from the U.K.’s plan to introduce a digital services tax on tech companies like Facebook and Google. Mnuchin then threatened to retaliate by potentially slapping a tariff on U.K. car exports.
See what others are saying: (The Guardian) (The Independent) (Business Insider)
Greece Elects Katerina Sakellaropoulou as First Woman President
- Greece’s first female president was elected on Wednesday in an overwhelming majority vote.
- Beyond being a large step toward gender equality, Katerina Sakellaropoulou’s election to the largely ceremonial role was a rare display of unity in Greek politics.
- The high judge received support from lawmakers across all major political parties after being nominated as a nonpartisan candidate by Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.
- This was a notable move from the Prime Minister as all but one of the 18 senior positions in his Cabinet are currently held by men.
First Female President-Elect
History was made in Greece on Wednesday when Katerina Sakellaropoulou was chosen to be the nation’s first woman president.
The 63-year-old high court judge was elected to the largely ceremonial post by parliament in an overwhelming majority vote that showed unity among Greek politicians. She took the presidency in a 261-33 vote, well above the 200 votes needed to win, and received support from Greek lawmakers across all major political parties. Six members of parliament were not present.
After being notified of her election, Sakellaropoulou said she would strive for the “broadest possible consensus” while she fulfills her presidential duties.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis nominated Sakellaropoulou last week as a non-partisan candidate, a move some believe he took to counter the criticism he has faced for selecting nearly an all-male cabinet after he was elected in July 2019. In the current Greek Cabinet, all eighteen senior positions are held by men except for one.
Sakellaropoulou is a trailblazer in the effort to fix the gender imbalance in the country’s government. She has spent the last fifteen months serving as the president of the Council of State, the country’s top administrative court, and was the first woman to step into that role, too.
Sakellaropoulou will begin her five-year term in March, when the term of Prokopis Pavlopoulos, the current president, comes to an end.
Praise for Sakellaropoulou
Upon the news of Sakellaropoulou’s win, several prominent figures spoke up to express their support. Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, tweeted that Greece is “moving ahead into a new era of equality.”
Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, also applauded Sakellaropoulou on Twitter.
“A great signal to elect the Republic’s first female head of state,” Michel wrote. “I strongly believe that Greece will continue to contribute to the future development of the European Union.”
Prime Minister Mitsotakis described the new president-elect as “a great judiciary personality who unites all Greeks from the minute this procedure began.”