EU unveils more sanctions on Iran but 'can't label IRGC terrorists'

Pressure mounting on officials to impose sanctions on Revolutionary Guards

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) taking part in a military drill in the south of Iran. AFP
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The EU on Monday placed 37 more Iranian officials and entities on an asset-freeze and visa-ban blacklist over Tehran's bloody crackdown on protesters.

But Josep Borrell, the bloc's foreign affairs chief, said the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) could not be designated a terrorist group and proscribed without a court decision.

In a co-ordinated move, the US and UK also increased their action against Iran on Monday. Iran on Tuesday strongly condemned sanctions imposed by the EU and Britain and said it would retaliate.

Relations between the 27-nation EU and Tehran have deteriorated during stalled efforts to revive talks on Iran's nuclear programme. Tensions increased as Iran has detained several European citizens.

The fourth round of sanctions against Tehran over its repression of demonstrators was adopted by the bloc's foreign ministers meeting in Brussels.

Among those targeted were representatives of the government and the Iranian Parliament, important political and media figures, as well as high-ranking members of the IRGC.

They include Minister of Sports and Youth Hamid Sajjadi as well as IRGC brigadier generals Ahmad Kadem, Mohammad Nazar Azimi and Mohammad Karami. The latter are accused of being responsible for violence against protesters, including killings.

“The EU strongly condemns the brutal and disproportionate use of force by the Iranian authorities against peaceful protesters,” said Sweden's Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom, according to a Twitter post by the country's Presidency of the Council of the EU.

The bloc had already imposed sanctions on more than 60 Iranian officials and entities over the crackdown on protesters, including targeting Tehran's morality police, IRGC commanders and state media.

But the EU has so far stopped short of blacklisting the IRGC and labelling it as a terrorist group, despite calls from Germany and the Netherlands to do so.

Mr Borrell said a court decision would be required before the group could be designated as terrorists.

“You cannot say I consider you a terrorist because I don't like you,” he said.

“It has to be when a court of one member state issues a legal statement, a concrete condemnation and then we work at European level, but there first has to be a court decision.”

The UK on Monday imposed sanctions on more Iranian figures over what it said were human rights violations on Iranian people, including the recent execution of British-Iranian dual citizen Ali Reza Akbari.

The sanctions included freezing the assets of Iranian deputy prosecutor general Ahmad Fazelian, who the British Foreign Office said was responsible for an unfair judicial system that was using the death penalty for political purposes.

Others subjected to sanctions included Kiyumars Heidari, commander in chief of Iran's ground forces; Hossein Nejat, deputy commander of the IRGC; the Basij Resistance Force and its deputy commander, Salar Abnoush.

The Basij Co-operative Foundation, linked to the Basij militia, and Qasem Rezaei, deputy commander of Iran's law enforcement forces, also had sanctions imposed.

“Those sanctioned today, from the judicial figures using the death penalty for political ends to the thugs beating protesters on the streets, are at the heart of the regime’s brutal repression of the Iranian people,” British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said.

The US also piled more sanctions against Iran on Monday and targeted the IRGC's Co-operative Foundation, described as an economic conglomerate established by senior officials of the group to manage its investments and presence in sectors of Iran's economy.

The IRGC Co-operative Foundation was previously designated by Washington under different sanctions authorities, but was designated under a human rights authority in Monday's action.

Also targeted were five of the IRGC Co-operative Foundation's board members, Deputy Minister of Intelligence and Security Naser Rashedi, and four senior IRGC commanders in Iran, the Treasury said.

The Human Rights Activists News Agency (Hrana) in the US says more than 500 people have been killed and nearly 20,000 arrested since the protests that followed the death of Mahsa Amini in morality police custody in Tehran on September 16.

Pressure has been mounting on the EU council to list the IRGC as a terrorist organisation, as the US did in 2019.

Arriving at the same meeting as Mr Borrell on Monday, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock earlier said the EU must talk about putting the IRGC on the sanctions list.

“We still see in Iran a brutal regime against its own population,” she said. “The Iranian regime [and] the Revolutionary Guards terrorise their own population day after day.”

French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna said “nothing is ruled out” regarding the IRGC.

More than 100 MEPs wrote to Mr Borrell two weeks ago calling on the bloc to designate the IRGC “in its entirety as a terrorist organisation”.

Some MEPs have criticised Mr Borrell over Iran for denouncing the recent execution of four protesters while also meeting Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian in Jordan on December 20 and trying to revive the nuclear agreement.

MEP Hannah Neumann, chairwoman of the delegation for relations with the Arab Peninsula, said “the EU should not be the ones stabilising a regime while its own people fight for its downfall”.

Iranian state media has reported that Mr Amirabdollahian told Mr Borrell targeting the IRGC would be “a shot in the foot of Europe itself”.

The IRGC was set up shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution to protect the Shiite clerical ruling system and provide a counterweight to the regular armed forces.

Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine was also to be discussed in Brussels on Monday.

Mr Borrell said foreign ministers would try to approve another €500 million ($545.00 million) of military aid for the country.

Discussions on the Sahel and an informal lunch with Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh are also on the agenda.

Talks will involve the postponed Palestinian elections and also address a resolution approved by the UN General Assembly last month requesting the International Court of Justice weighs in on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, an EU official said last week.

Mr Borrell described the situation on the ground as “very worrisome”.

“We’ll discuss how to engage more with the Palestinian Authority,” he said.

Updated: January 24, 2023, 6:19 AM