What the EU blacklisting of Iran's Revolutionary Guards could mean
An EU parliamentary motion demanding that member states designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) as a terrorist organisation was resoundingly adopted last Thursday with 598 votes in favour, nine against, and 31 abstentions.
Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) urged the EU to expand its sanctions list to cover all individuals and entities responsible for human rights violations in Iran and their family members, namely the IRGC, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, President Ebrahim Raisi and Iranian Prosecutor General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri.
They also called on the European Council to add the IRGC and its subsidiaries like the Basij and the Quds force to the EU terrorist list.
The vote came as part of an EU response to the crackdown by Iranian authorities on the demonstrations that started last September after the death of Mahsa Amini in the custody of the morality police, and "in the light of its terrorist activity, the repression of protesters and its supplying of drones to Russia".
"We are seeing Europe's posture toward Iran hardening, there's an increasing consensus in favour of a designation of the entity as a whole"
It also came as EU foreign ministers discussed a fourth round of sanctions on Tehran at a meeting in Brussels on Monday. The bloc’s ministers agreed on a new package of sanctions targeting 37 more officials with travel bans and asset freezes, but stopped short of labelling the elite Revolutionary Guard as “terrorists” for now.
“We are seeing Europe’s posture toward Iran hardening, there’s an increasing consensus in favour of a designation of the entity as a whole,” Jason Brodsky, a Middle East analyst who specialises in leadership dynamics in Iran and its IRGC, commented to The New Arab. “I don’t think they’re ready for that yet but there is certainly momentum”.
The issue of adding the IRGC to the list of Europe’s terrorist entities was a central demand that brought thousands in the Iranian diaspora to rally in front of the European Parliament in Strasbourg last week, pressing the EU to take a firmer stand against Iran’s Islamic regime.
Tehran has threatened severe consequences for the motion. The General Staff of the Armed Forces, Iran's most senior military body, warned the move, "will affect regional and global security, tranquillity and peace, and the European Parliament should be careful about its consequences". A representative of Ali Khamenei anticipated reciprocal measures targeted at European armies.
The parliament’s resolution is non-binding since the terror labelling of the IRGC must be voted unanimously by all 27 EU members in the European Council. Many politicians in France, Germany and other European countries have been pushing for this designation by the EU.
Farzin Nadimi, defence and security analyst and Iran scholar, observed that in case of adoption, it will be up to individual countries to come up with national regulations and laws to sever ties with the IRGC.
“It all depends on how those sanctions will be designed, whether they will have any effect in combination with other sanctions,” he told The New Arab.
While largely symbolic, the motion has revived political pressure on Iran amid ongoing demonstrations.
“The reaction of [the] Iran regime is atrocious and horrible, and they are trampling over fundamental human rights," said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week, backing the terror listing.
The UK is expected to make a similar decision in the coming weeks. Members of the House of Commons passed a resolution last Thursday urging the UK government to proscribe the IRGC, a sign of Britain’s toughening attitude towards the Islamic Republic.
In mid-January, Iranian-British national Alireza Akbari, a former Iranian defence ministry official, was executed for allegedly spying for Britain’s security service MI6. In response, the UK sanctioned Iran’s prosecutor general and temporarily recalled the British ambassador to Tehran.
More than four months into the nationwide protests, pressure has been growing on the EU and Britain to blacklist the IRGC. The US declared it a foreign terrorist organisation in 2019 under former President Donald Trump, a year after he unilaterally withdrew from the 2015 nuclear accord (JCPOA) Tehran signed with world powers.
Relations between European nations and Tehran have been strained in recent months due to a number of issues, from stalled nuclear talks to the continuing violent suppression of protests, the detention of several European citizens in the country, as well as Iran’s transfer of armed drones to Russia for deployment in the war with Ukraine.
"Formed after the 1979 Islamic Revolution to protect the Republic from domestic and foreign threats, the Revolutionary Guard is Iran's most powerful military force"
Nadimi pointed out that Iran’s arming of Russia with drones used against Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure was a crucial factor behind the shifting mood in Europe. “If Iran didn’t supply weapons to Russia in the Ukraine war, I cannot see that the mere events inside Iran could cause such a major European drive”, the expert contented.
Formed after the 1979 Islamic Revolution to protect the Republic from domestic and foreign threats, the Revolutionary Guard is Iran’s most powerful military force. It also dominates the country’s key economic sectors, including energy, construction, telecommunication, media, mining, banking, nuclear and more.
The IRGC has played a major role in suppressing anti-government demonstrations. So far, over 500 protesters have been killed, thousands arrested, and four have been executed.
An EU classification of the IRGC as a terrorist group would have some economic impact, as any activity involving businesses and commercial activities related to, owned by, or covering for the IRGC would be targeted. Its members would also be banned from travelling to the EU, and any assets in the bloc would be frozen.
In Nadimi’s view, if the EU decides to restrict Iran’s access to its airspace or limit the shipping traffic within its borders there would be important repercussions since the IRGC runs large parts of the country’s civil aviation and shipping industries.
Still, Iran can successfully circumvent some of the restrictions. The IRGC has been long entrenching its economic clout in the country while bypassing foreign companies to counter international sanctions.
Trita Parsi, executive vice-president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and expert on Iranian foreign policy, argued for targeted sanctions against specific individuals as opposed to broad ones that do not tend to change “the policy of the target”.
“Years of broad-based economic sanctions and Trump's decision to withdraw from the JCPOA have led to a significant reduction in EU-Iran trade, which in turn means that the EU has far less leverage and ability to impact Iranian policies than it should,” the specialist explained to The New Arab.
In an op-ed published by MSNBC, he affirmed that the IRGC even “benefits financially from broad-based economic sanctions” since it controls the smuggling economy in Iran that has emerged in the aftermath of those sanctions.
Brodsky noted that the EU decision would send a significant statement of support to Iranian protesters from an economic standpoint, given the “IRGC’s prime control” over the national economy. It would also signal a shift in the attitude of previous years of engaging with the Islamic regime. Nonetheless, he believes sanctions alone are insufficient and need to be coupled with diplomatic isolation.
“European states should downgrade diplomatic relations by recalling their ambassadors en masse, and declaring a number of diplomatic figures ‘personae non gratae’ in Europe,” Brodsky said. He specifically advocated for the sanctioning of the Supreme Leader, his son Mojtaba Khamenei, along with President Raisi.
A terror designation would trigger a political backlash and an escalation of tensions that would further damage the already fraught relations with the Islamic Republic. It would also hinder talks with the West on reviving the nuclear deal, which came to a stalemate in September.
"Domestically, terror-listing the IRGC is unlikely to ease Tehran's hard-line policies or help the Iranian pro-democracy movement"
Some observers anticipate that greater hostilities may result in the Iranian regime obstructing or limiting navigation for European vessels in the Persian Gulf’s Hormuz Strait, or disrupting energy shipments from the Gulf. Officials in Tehran have already threatened to retaliate by putting the UK Navy on its terror list hinting at possible “tensions in regional waters”.
In addition, the move risks provoking retaliatory measures by Tehran against dual and European nationals in Iran as well as assassination plots, hostage-taking and other offences on foreign soil, including in Europe and the UK. British intelligence agency MI5 acknowledged there had been at least ten threats from Iran’s “aggressive intelligence services” to kidnap or kill UK-based individuals in 2022.
Domestically, terror-listing the IRGC is unlikely to ease Tehran’s hard-line policies or help the Iranian pro-democracy movement, and may only give little solace to the many outraged Iranians in Europe over the military organisation’s brutal clampdown on protests.
According to Parsi, escalating tensions can instead undermine the protest movement, “while emboldening the IRGC and intensifying its repression of the Iranian people in its paranoid search for enemies within”.
Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis.
Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec