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Iran’s IRGC in U.S. Sanctions Spotlight

When President Trump recently outlined his administration’s approach to Iran, he called for addressing “the full range of Iran’s destructive actions” beyond just the nuclear issue. The first step was calling on Treasury to further sanction the entire Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps for its support for terrorism and to apply sanctions to its officials, agents, and affiliates.

What is the IRGC?

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is a branch of Iran’s armed forces, established after the 1979 revolution. Trump described the IRGC as “the Iranian Supreme Leader’s corrupt personal terror force and militia,” and added that “it has hijacked large portions of Iran’s economy and seized massive religious endowments to fund war and terror abroad.”

With a mandate to defend the Islamic Republic and its ideology, the IRGC also plays a role in internal security. 

With a mandate to defend the Islamic Republic and its ideology, the IRGC also plays a role in internal security, which Iran’s traditional military forces do not. Notable groups within the IRGC include the Basij, the all-volunteer force that monitors Iranian citizens for compliance with the regime; and the Qods Force, which projects Iranian influence throughout the region, supplying weapons and training to Iranian proxies, which include Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, and the Houthis in Yemen.

What is the legal basis for sanctioning the IRGC?

The latest Iran sanctions bill, the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, signed into law by Trump in August, directed the president, within 90 days, to extend all terror-related sanctions to the IRGC as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) entity, per Executive Order 13224. That executive order, signed in 2001 shortly after the 9/11 attacks, gives the U.S. government the authority to block the assets of individuals and firms that are found to have committed, or pose a significant risk of committing, acts of terrorism that threaten the security of U.S. nationals or the national security, foreign policy, or economy of the U.S.

While individuals and firms linked to the IRGC and the IRGC Qods Force have been sanctioned in the past, designating the IRGC in its entirety as a global terrorist group is a step further than previous sanctions.

What is the difference between a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) and a Specially Designated Global Terrorist group?

The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act explicitly calls for the IRGC to be designated under Executive Order 13224, and not the Immigration and Nationality Act, which outlines the designation of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs). There are several critical differences between the two:

  • While both include an asset freeze of the designated individuals or entities, the FTO designation imposes immigration restrictions on all members of the designated group, while the executive order’s travel restrictions are narrower and more specific.
  • The Treasury is authorized to designate SDGTs, in addition to the State Department. But only the State Department can designate FTOs.
  • The most significant difference is in their criteria and scope. Executive Order 13224 designates a wider group of entities, including terrorist groups, individuals acting as part of or in support of terrorist groups, as well as front companies used by terrorist groups and their financiers.

What sanctionable activities has the IRGC been involved in?

The IRGC plays a central role in almost all Iranian activities that have been the cause of U.S. sanctions, including Iran’s ballistic missile program, human rights abuses, and support for international terrorism. 

In an effort to support the Assad regime in Syria, the IRGC has used private airline flights to shuttle fighters, weapons, and cash from Tehran to Damascus, creating an effective air bridge between the two states. There are an estimated five Iranian airline companies and two Syrian companies engaged in regular flights between the two capitals, providing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with vital supplies. Human Rights Watch has also reported that the IRGC is actively recruiting young Afghan immigrants living in Iran, some as young as 14 years old, to fight alongside Syrian government forces—in violation of international law.

In Yemen, IRGC forces have developed new smuggling channels to move resources and supplies to the Houthi rebels, despite an embargo of the Yemini state. To get around the embargo, the IRGC transfers weapons from Iranian Naval vessels onto smaller, sometimes private, boats in Kuwaiti and international water, in order to evade U.S. and Saudi ships. Numerous small fishing boats have been intercepted with millions in cash and missile equipment that was being sent to the Houthi rebels.

The IRGC has also been linked to brazen terrorist plots in the Western Hemisphere, including the 1994 bombing of the Argentine Israeli Mutual Association (AMIA), which killed 85; and a foiled 2011 plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the United States and bomb the Saudi and Israeli Embassies in Washington.

Does sanctioning the IRGC violate the Iran deal?

Sanctions relief under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is based on the distinction between nuclear sanctions, lifted under the deal, and non-nuclear sanctions related to Iran’s domestic human rights abuses or support for terrorism, which are unaffected by the deal. The sanctions that Trump and Congress have called for against the IRGC are non-nuclear, and therefore would not violate the JCPOA.   

While complying with JCPOA, the largest leverage the United States has is its ability to impose sanctions on Iran for non-nuclear reasons. Bolstering non-nuclear sanctions against Iran allows the United States to continue to address its many non-nuclear concerns with Iran, as well as begin re-exerting pressure on the regime for an eventual renegotiation of JCPOA.

What impact will sanctions on the IRGC have on Iran?

Under the international sanctions regime, the Iranian economy was sealed off from foreign investment, allowing the IRGC to heavily embed itself in the Iranian economy. It is estimated that the IRGC has ties to over 200 Iranian companies and that it controls 20 percent to 40 percent of the Iranian economy. Most significant is the IRGC’s control of Khatam al-Anbiya, Iran’s largest and most influential contractor for industry and development. According to estimates from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Khatam al-Anbiya has an estimated 135,000 employees, 5,000 subcontracting firms, and more than 800 subsidiaries, and the value of its contracts is estimated at nearly $50 billion, or about 12 percent of Iran’s GDP.

U.S. Iran policy should pursue some basic objectives and embrace certain fundamental principles 

The revenue gained by the IRGC’s vast economic holdings—which range from construction, to banking, to oil and gas, to shipping, to aviation, to telecommunications, and more—is then used to finance its activities around the globe, and translates to domestic political power for the IRGC. Robust sanctions on the IRGC could limit its economic power and therefore its ability to continue to spread unrest throughout the region, and also have significant impact on the Iranian economy itself.

What next?

Expanding Iranian influence threatens every significant national interest that the United States has in the Middle East: opposing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the spread of terrorism; protecting the U.S. homeland and supporting allies; and ensuring freedom of navigation and the flow of energy from the Persian Gulf. In order to achieve a sustainable order in the region—which should be the goal of U.S. policy—the United States needs a comprehensive strategy for dealing with all of the ways in which Iran threatens U.S. interests.

To accomplish this, U.S. Iran policy should pursue some basic objectives and embrace certain fundamental principles, outlined in the recent BPC report Dealing with a De-Certified Iran Deal.


  • Tamp down on low-level cheating by Iran
  • Ensure full implementation of the deal
  • Address shortcomings of the deal
  • Counter Iran’s destabilizing activities


  • Put the onus on Iran to act responsibly
  • Maintain U.S. credibility
  • Prioritize regional stability
  • Lead in a joint and cooperative approach between the president and Congress

Constraining the power of the IRGC can be one part of that larger strategy. The IRGC plays a significant role in Iran’s malign activities, from its repression of its domestic population to its destabilization of its neighbors and the region. Extending non-nuclear sanctions to the IRGC is a good first step in the president’s stated strategy of confronting the full range of Iran’s destructive activities. It provides a model going forward, one where the United States maximizes its use of punitive actions still permitted under JCPOA.

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