The Foreign Affairs Committee of the British House of Commons recently issued a report that recommended terrorist designation for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. “The IRGC’s philosophy and malign actions within Iran and across the region run counter to the interests of the UK and those of the Iranian people,” the report said after noting that the hardline paramilitary organization satisfies “the criteria for proscription in the Terrorism Act 2000.”
It remains to be seen whether the government of the United Kingdom will act in accordance with this recommendation, though blacklisting of the IRGC is certainly long overdue. It was already overdue in 2019 when the United States took that step, extending the label of “Foreign Terrorist Organization” to the entire paramilitary where it had once been limited to the foreign special operations division known as the Quds Force. That move was formally embraced by 37 British Members of Parliament, who urged the UK to follow suit, thereby helping to set the stage for the recent report.
The lawmakers’ statement placed roughly equal emphasis on the IRGC’s support of foreign terrorism and its suppression of pro-democratic dissent both at home and abroad. It also took a broader view of the pressure that might be exerted on Iranian institutions, identifying the Ministry of Intelligence and Security as something that is equally deserving of terrorist designation. There is no immediate sign that this is on the table, but real action against the IRGC could be a sign of assertive trends in Western policy toward the Iranian regime as a whole.
Citizens of Western nations and supporters of Middle Eastern democracy should eagerly look forward to that outcome, and they should push aggressively for policies that support it. And pending such an assertive shift, those same people should be prepared for potential escalation in the threats posed by the IRGC, the MOIS, and their overseers in Tehran. That potential was placed vividly on display about two and a half years ago when European authorities thwarted an Iranian terror plot that would have most likely killed hundreds, if not thousands of people in a Paris suburb.
The target of that plot was a gathering of Iranian expatriates organized by the National Council of Resistance of Iran. The NCRI’s main constituent group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK), had led a nationwide uprising inside Iran just several months before the event, and the French terror plot proved to be just one aspect of a broader strategy aimed at stamping out dissent.
That strategy has been fruitless so far, but there is no guarantee that the repression of dissent won’t become more effective as it escalates. That escalation was evident in November 2019, when the Iranian people and the MEK staged another uprising, similar in focus but even larger in scale than that which took place at the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018. Whereas the earlier incident led to several dozen deaths, the latter was met with much swifter brutality, particularly from the IRGC, which opened fire on crowds of peaceful protesters and killed 1,500 people in a matter of days.
That one series of killings is more than enough justification for designating the IRGC as a terrorist organization. It also goes a long way toward highlighting the extent to which the Iranian people could be expected to benefit from measures that stem the flow of cash to and from the IRGC and thereby encourage the reallocation of wealth back to the Iranian people. Detailed reports from the MEK and the NCRI describe the IRGC as constituting a financial empire that encompasses more than half of the Iran’s gross domestic product. And the effects of that economic dominance have perhaps never been more apparent than during the Covid-19 pandemic, which by some accounts has left 186,900 Iranians dead while others suffer in absence of direct assistance from the government or its affiliates.
The 2018 Paris terror plot is a stark reminder that these two phenomena go hand-in-hand, as do the interests of the Iranian people and the Western world. Meanwhile, the details of that plot underscore the fact that the malign activities associated with the IRGC are actual integral aspects of the entire Iranian regime’s strategy for maintaining its hold on power.
The bomb that was meant to be used against the NCRI’s Free Iran rally was smuggled into Europe by a high-ranking Iranian diplomat, the third counsellor at the regime’s embassy in Vienna. He then handed off the bomb to two Iranian-Belgian operatives with longstanding ties to the Ministry of Intelligence. These three individuals, plus another accomplice, are currently on trial in Belgium, where prosecutors have emphasized that their operation was ordered from the highest ranks of the Iranian regime.
The Iranian government’s involvement spans both factions of its internal politics – the “hardliners” associated with Supreme Leader Khamenei and the “reformists” who are nominally led by President Hassan Rouhani. Fellow “reformist” Javad Zarif, the regime’s Foreign Minister and the main object of conciliatory Western interactions with Tehran, was doubtlessly involved as the overseer of terrorist diplomats like Assadollah Assadi, the one currently on trial.
The US was correct to acknowledge in 2019 that there is no meaningful separation between the IRGC and the Quds Force. Now it is time for the US, the UK, and their mutual allies to acknowledge that there is also no meaningful separation between the IRGC and the regime as a whole. The regime is a terrorist regime, and it should be designated and dealt with all through that designation.