By Joyce Karam
US President Donald Trump’s Middle East policy attracted more controversy Wednesday after reports that the administration is mulling executive orders that would designate both the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as foreign terrorist organizations.
Middle East experts who spoke to Arab News pointed to a “compelling case” for adding the IRGC on the terrorist list, but a more thorny one when it comes to the Brotherhood.
Given the particularities of its offshoots and its regional reach, the potential designation of the Brotherhood carries more risks than the IRGC, experts said.
Sources within the Trump administration told Arab News that a broad designation of the Brotherhood across different countries is “less likely”, and the preference would be in targeting ideological, country-based and clerical affiliates of the organization that espouse violence.
Both the New York Times and Reuters reported Wednesday on a debate within the Trump administration over adding the Brotherhood and IRGC as foreign terrorist organizations, similar to Hezbollah, Hamas or Al-Qaeda who sit on a long list of groups that Washington has targeted since 1997.
The Times noted that “the Iran part of the plan has strong support within the White House” and that “momentum behind the Muslim Brotherhood proposal seems to have slowed in recent days amid objections from career officials at the State Department and the National Security Council.”
These objections, Arab News learned, have halted the designation of the Brotherhood and broadened the circle of consultations on the topic within the administration.
While advisers to the president including Michael Flynn, Stephen Bannon and Sebastian Gorka are keener on designating the Brotherhood, it is the high-ranking officials at the State and Defense departments who are urging more caution in approaching this issue.
Hassan Hassan, a fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, told Arab News that designating the Brotherhood as a whole “is not a good idea but the broad ideology of the organization (is) somewhat implicated in the violent extremism problem.”
The expert and co-author of New York Times bestseller “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror” offered the reasons to be alarmed about the Brotherhood. “Carrying out a suicide bombings, for example, is justified by Islamists even though they affirm peaceful engagement,” he said. “The contribution of Islamism to the jihadist ideologies is extremely downplayed and even overlooked by so-called experts.”
Hassan added: “Anyone with basic knowledge of jihadists will know the depth of revolutionary Islamist contribution to their worldview and ideology.”
Still, and while Hassan highlights the need to recognize and counter the Brotherhood’s destructive contribution, he recommends a way forward that would target this stream of thought and practice “without having to deal with the complexity of actually designating them.”
Designating the IRGC on the other hand is gaining more traction in Washington. Perry Cammack, a fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Arab News that there is “a stronger and more compelling case for designating the IRGC, because it perpetrates violence and undermines US interests in the region.” Cammack, who worked previously at the Congress and State Department, questioned the impact of such a designation.
“We have had sanctions against Iran for decades now, and the IRGC has only become bolder and more entrenched regionally,” Cammack said. The former US official sees “a positive short term benefit coming from the IRGC designation” but not necessarily a game changer in the chess match between Iran and the US.
Both Hassan and Cammack see a larger benefit in isolating the offshoots of the Brotherhood and designating each or wings within each of them, on a case-by-case basis. Ennahda in Tunisia is starkly different from Hamas or the Brotherhood in Syria or Egypt, said Cammack.
Hassan called for “labeling the dangerous ingredients of the movement” or clerics aligned with it such as “Youssef Al-Qaradawi who (has said) it is okay to blow yourself up.” This issue could come up during CIA director Michael Pompeo’s visit to Turkey, which starts today.
In the aftermath of Trump’s controversial executive order issuing a travel ban from seven Muslim-majority countries, it is expected that the administration will pursue its deliberations more carefully on designating the IRGC or the Brotherhood. The process could take weeks entailing a State Department review before an authorization or rejection by the president himself.
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