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US Weighing Terrorist Label for Iran Guards

by Helen Cooper

WASHINGTON, Aug. 14 - The Bush administration is preparing to declare that Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps is a foreign terrorist organization, senior administration officials said Tuesday.

If imposed, the declaration would signal a more confrontational turn in the administration's approach to Iran and would be the first time that the United States has added the armed forces of any sovereign government to its list of terrorist organizations.

The Revolutionary Guard is thought to be the largest branch of Iran's military. While the United States has long labeled Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism, a decision to single out the guard would amount to an aggressive new challenge from an American administration that has recently seemed conflicted over whether to take a harder line against Tehran over its nuclear program and what American officials have called its destabilizing role in Iraq.

According to European diplomats, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has warned of the move in recent conversations with European counterparts, saying that a delay in efforts to win approval from the United Nations Security Council for further economic sanctions on Iran was leaving the administration with little choice but unilateral action.

A move toward putting the Revolutionary Guard on the foreign terrorist list would serve at least two purposes for Ms. Rice: to pacify, for a while, administration hawks who are pushing for possible military action, and to further press America's allies to ratchet up sanctions against Iran in the Security Council.

The State Department and Treasury officials are pushing for a stronger set of United Nations Security Council sanctions against members of Iran's government, including an extensive travel ban and further moves to restrict the ability of Iran's financial institutions to do business abroad. American officials have also been trying to get European and Asian banks to take additional steps against Iran.

Senior administration officials said current plans called for the declaration to be made this month, but cautioned that it could be put off, and that the effort could still be set aside if the Security Council moved more quickly to impose broad sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program.

The officials said the declaration was being pushed by Ms. Rice, and would not say if it had been endorsed by the National Security Council or the Pentagon.

President Bush seemed to signal a tougher approach to Iran last week when he called attention to what American officials have said was an active role by the Revolutionary Guard in providing munitions, training and other support to Shiite militants who have been attacking American troops in Iraq. "When we catch you playing a nonconstructive role, there will be a price to pay," Mr. Bush said of Iran during a news conference on Thursday.

Listing would set in motion a series of automatic sanctions that would make it easier for the United States to block financial accounts and other assets controlled by the guard. In particular, the action would freeze any assets the guard has in the United States, although it is unlikely that the guard maintains much in the way of assets in American banks or other institutions.

In the internal debate over American policy toward Iran, Ms. Rice has succeeded over the last year in holding the Bush administration to a diplomatic course in which America and five other world powers have used the Security Council to impose sanctions to try to get Tehran to suspend its enrichment of uranium.

But in recent months, there has been resurgent debate within the administration about whether the diplomatic path is working, with aides to Vice President Dick Cheney said to be among those pushing for greater consideration of military options. The debate has been kindled by reports from international inspectors detailing Iran's progress in its nuclear program, including the installation of more than 1,000 centrifuges to enrich uranium, as well as the assertions from American intelligence officials about an Iranian role in providing arms and other support to Shiite militias in Iraq and to Taliban militants in Afghanistan.

Iran has repeatedly denied that it is seeking to build nuclear weapons, that it is helping in any way to facilitate attacks on American troops in Iraq or that it is shipping any weapons to the Taliban, a group Iran opposed in the 1990s.

On Tuesday, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad again dismissed American complaints that Iran is providing weapons to the Taliban. Speaking in Kabul, Afghanistan, after talks with President Hamid Karzai, he said Iran was "fully supporting" its new government.

Mr. Karzai played down the dispute over the weapons shipments, as he did during a visit to the White House this month. He said that Afghanistan and Iran were "brothers" and that both the United States and Iran were helping reconstruct his country.

In June, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said the volume of weapons reaching the Taliban from Iran made it "difficult to believe" that the shipments were "taking place without the knowledge of the Iranian government." In a television interview the same day, Assistant Secretary of State R. Nicholas Burns said there was "irrefutable evidence" that the weapons were coming from the Revolutionary Guard.

There are currently 42 organizations on the State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations, including Al Qaeda, the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and the Palestinian groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

In taking aim at the guard, the administration is also trying to divide Iran's population. During his news conference on Thursday, President Bush addressed the Iranian people directly. "My message to the Iranian people is, 'You can do better than this current government,' " Mr. Bush said. " 'You don't have to be isolated. You don't have to be in a position where you can't realize your full economic potential.' "

The United States government has not made a public estimate about the size of the Revolutionary Guard, an organization that dates to the Islamic revolution of 1979 and whose branches are believed to extend widely throughout the Iranian military. An estimate by GlobalSecurity.org, a research group based in Alexandria, Va., puts the total guard forces at 125,000.

The guard and its military wing are identified as a power base for Mr. Ahmadinejad. Under his administration, American officials said, the guard has moved increasingly into commercial operations, earning profits and extending its influence in Iran in areas involving big government contracts, including building airports and other infrastructure, oil production and providing cellphones.

The immediate legal consequence of the guard's designation as a terrorist organization would be to make it unlawful for anyone subject to United States jurisdiction to knowingly provide material support or resources to the guard, according to the State Department. Any United States financial institution that becomes aware that it possesses, or has control over, funds of a foreign terrorist organization would have to turn them over to the Treasury Department.

Because Iran has done little business with the United States in more than two decades, the larger point of the designation would be to heighten the political and psychological pressure on Iran, administration officials said, by using the designation to persuade foreign governments and financial institutions to cut ties with Iranian businesses and individuals.

The decision would have little impact on American military activities in Iraq, where coalition forces already pursue fighters, advisers and financiers who support antigovernment forces, according to a senior Defense Department official. "We are going to go after any forces that are engaged in activities that are disruptive to the stability and security of Iraq," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the subject was pending administration policy.

Thom Shanker contributed reporting from Washington, and David Rohde from Kabul, Afghanistan.

© 2007 The New York Times

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