To counter Iran's Revolutionary Guards, Europeans need to walk the walk

The IRGC is badly in need of European and UK proscription in its entirety

UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly arriving in Downing Street in December. EPA
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UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly could perhaps be forgiven for his keenness to show resolution on Iran, but his latest comments would suggest that some clarification on the UK policy is needed.

At an online engagement on foreign policy last week, Mr Cleverly proclaimed that the UK had sanctioned the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in its entirety. To reinforce the point, the Foreign Office tweeted: “The IRGC is sanctioned by the UK in its entirety. We will hold the tyrants in Iran to account.”

In fact, blanket UK measures against the IRGC are solely under the umbrella of the nuclear talks on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). As Alicia Kearns, Mr Cleverly’s colleague and chairman of the House of Commons foreign affairs committee, pointed out after his video, the JCPOA has sunset those particular sanctions for this year. Mr Cleverly’s pronouncement also falls far short of the demands of some that the IRGC be proscribed as a terrorist organisation.

What the incident highlighted was a toughening of the rhetoric from western politicians around the IRGC. The tough talk at least suggests decisive action should follow.

The mass protests and the brutal response of the authorities since the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was in custody on accusations of not wearing a head covering properly, have changed the diplomatic weather for Iran.

The bloodshed seen in Iran in this latest bout of demonstrations and crackdown has seen pressure build on politicians to show a stronger response. Cabinet ministers are being pushed to look again at IRGC policy.

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Research has exposed the link between indoctrination activity directly to the Iranian supreme leader’s office

Just last week, both the Dutch and German parliaments passed motions demanding that the IRGC be designated a terrorist organisation. The governing coalition in Berlin is believed to be on board and 43 members of Germany's biggest party, the Social Democratic Party, have signed an open letter demanding the move.

The German government in response removed export credit guarantees from Iranian trade. It is pushing the case at the EU level but the issue is being resisted, not least by France, which is attempting to maintain its contacts with Hezbollah. As proscription of the IRGC would affect Hezbollah, the Iranian militia’s offshoot in Lebanon, the French role in brokering between the tensions there would be scuttled.

A distinction between political and armed activities would no longer be tenable.

While the UK is freer to act, it has concentrated its measures in response to the unrest on judges and senior figures as individuals as well as IRGC companies so far in the process.

Kasra Aarabi, an analyst at the Tony Blair Institute in London, argues that the West as a whole proscribe the IRGC, not rely on sanctions in part. This would follow the move taken by the US in 2019 when it designated the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organisation.

The reasons to cite for making such a move would not be difficult to find. From Middle East-focused attacks on commercial oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, to cross-border attacks to dronefare or bomb factories and underground assassination operations in Europe.

Earlier this year, there was surprisingly little political reaction in the UK when the head of domestic intelligence agency, MI5, said it had uncovered 10 attempts by Iran to kidnap or kill activists on British soil in 2022 alone. Such remarks build a background to action and that is what we should expect in 2023.

Mr Aarabi makes a deeper point about the IRGC, which is that it is not merely a vanguard set up to protect a regime from the threat of overthrow. It is the nexus of an ideology that is hostile to western countries. Officials should see that unwavering aspect to the group and act accordingly.

A mural, depicting members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in the waters of the Arabian Gulf, in Tehran. EPA

“Policymakers should see the IRGC as the mobilisation of a violent and extreme ideology that has repercussions that resonate far beyond Iran’s direct sphere of influence,” Mr Aarabi wrote in a seminal report for the Tony Blair Institute in 2020. “The IRGC is committed to what it refers to as ‘ideological-political’ training of recruits. The worldview within which this training is framed is extremist and violent.”

Research done at the time exposed the link between this indoctrination activity – common among terror groups – directly to the Iranian supreme leader’s office, which has a cell in the IRGC for this purpose.

“It uses indoctrination to radicalise its recruits in a hardline ideology,” he believes. “It not only calls for killing Iranians that are opposed to the regime by torturing them before their death. The modus operandi of the IRGC: terrorism, hostage-taking and kidnappings.”

Drawing a distinction between the IRGC and the people of Iran would be a valuable symbolic move as events in Iran move to a decisive point.

For leaders such as Mr Cleverly, who relatively recently thought normalisation with Iran was on offer, the country is more and more frequently raised in public and private. The negative signalling from the UK Foreign Secretary towards Tehran has grown stronger.

This year is certain to see more punitive measures issued against Iran and proscription looks to be one tool that the UK and its friends can put on the agenda.

Published: January 02, 2023, 4:00 AM
Updated: January 04, 2023, 12:16 PM