By Edward Carney
On Wednesday, Iranian officials began voicing new criticisms of the United States after the revelation of pending terrorist designation for the Muslim Brotherhood. The organization has been a driving force behind a number of violent Islamist movements throughout the region, and its designation will no doubt be embraced as long overdue by many Western experts on Middle East policy. But Iran has a long history of aligning with Islamist groups, including those that represent the opposite side of the Sunni/Shiite divide, for the sake of joint opposition to Western interests.
“The U.S. is not in position to start naming others as terror organizations, and we reject by any attempt by the U.S. in this regard,” Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told reporters at a conference in Doha. His remarks were reminiscent of the Iranian government’s response to the designation, last month, of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization. As well as verbally condemning that long-discussed gesture, Iranian lawmakers also passed a bill that was signed into law by President Hassan Rouhani on Tuesday, applying terrorist designation to US military forces throughout the region and declaring the US government as sponsor of terrorism.
Of course, by criticizing the US but also emulating its strategy, the Islamic Republic is sending mixed messages about the viability of terrorist designation as a political statement and a means of exerting pressure on foreign adversaries. But on the other hand, the American and Iranian designations are unlikely to prove comparable, since the IRGC terror designation is expected to cut off the paramilitary group from a wide variety of foreign markets while Iran’s designation of the US military is not expected to have much in the way of practical effects.
If there is any specific area in which the latter maneuver may prove effective, it is simply in the area of propaganda among preexisting adversaries of the US. In that sense, Iran’s condemnation of US plans for the Muslim Brotherhood may be aimed in large part at discouraging other Islamic or Muslim-majority entities from negotiating with representatives of the US or its allies.
It is interesting to note that at the same time Tehran is personally reaching out to those sorts of entities and condemning the US for its alienation thereof, it is also pursuing the alternative and contradictory strategy of condemning the US for reaching out to other groups that fit into the same general category. This was evident last week when Foreign Minister Zarif said it was “seriously wrong” for the US government to push for a deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan as part of an effort to end the long American military presence there.
This statement seemingly disregarded the numerous reports that have emerged in recent years of high-level talks between the Iranian government and Taliban leaders. As recently as Wednesday, the Afghanistan Times reported that there had been “several reports of Iran providing support to militants in the country,” and that the Revolutionary Guards had routinely been providing financing to the Taliban in Farah Province, near the border between the two countries.
Given that this ongoing coordination coexists with Tehran’s condemnation of American diplomatic overtures toward the same group, it is clear that Iran condemns its adversaries and supports its own institutions and proxies whenever it is politically convenient, and with little regard for inherent contradictions. This phenomenon can also be seen in the case of the Yemeni Civil War, where both Iran and Saudi Arabia have been credibly accused of carelessly contributing to the awful suffering of the civilian population.
While Tehran has contributed to the condemnation of Saudi-led bombing campaigns during that war, it has also directed the IRGC-supported Houthi rebels to renege on ceasefire agreements, including one that was concluded last December. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called attention to this at a recent event in Washington, where he said the Houthis “continue to refuse to comply with the agreements that they signed up for in Stockholm, Sweden, they refuse to withdraw from the port of Hudaydah... because Iran has chosen to direct them to do that.”
This led the Iranian Foreign Ministry to respond on Tuesday by describing Pompeo’s statement as part of a “blame game.” But at the same time that they rebuked the US for supposedly downplaying Saudi contributions to the crisis, the Iranian officials did little to contradict the American account of IRGC actions in defiance of international agreements concerning Yemen.