In a reflection of hardening Western attitudes toward the Iranian regime, a number of countries have begun in recent weeks to consider banning the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in its entirety.
The 125,000-strong IRGC is the Islamic Republic of Iran's praetorian guard. It is also, alongside the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, the main instrument the regime possesses both for internal repression and for external subversion.
The IRGC is a vital tool of Iranian policy. Responsible for a number of fearful massacres in the first years of the Islamic Republic, it has also carried out assassinations on European soil and elsewhere, from the 1980s until today.
The attempted murder of former Iranian prime minister Shapour Bakhtiar in 1980 in a Paris suburb was among the IRGC's first high-profile operations on foreign soil. The IRGC finally succeeded in killing Bakhtiar in Suresnes, France, in August 1991.
The assassination of four leading Iranian Kurdish political figures in the Mykonos restaurant in Berlin in September 1992 was among many subsequent high-profile killings in Europe and beyond it.
The IRGC's casual dismissal of the legitimacy of state borders and foreign sovereignties has continued until the present time. As recently as August 2022, the US Justice Department announced charges against an IRGC member plotting to kill John Bolton, the former US national security advisor.
Perhaps of greater consequence, the IRGC's unparalleled skills in proxy and revolutionary warfare are the single most important components in Tehran's successful advance into the Arab world's heartland over the last decade. The IRGC's methods for the recruitment, training, indoctrination and deployment of Shia and other Arab youth, in the service of Tehran, are the key elements that have enabled Iran to outperform its Sunni rivals, and arguably the West also, in this vital realm.
The IRGC's reach and influence throughout the Middle East and beyond
THE PROTOTYPE for the IRGC's methodology and practice of turning irregular warfare into political power is Lebanese Hezbollah, its earliest franchise. Forty years after its emergence, Hezbollah today controls and rules Lebanon as a satrapy, on Tehran's behalf.
The IRGC's creation or sponsorship of parallel and similar bodies has brought it massive and immovable influence in Syria, a dominant role in Iraq, control of a large part of Yemen (including the capital, Sana'a), and a key role in Palestinian politics, where it is today the only state actively providing training and materials to those engaged in armed activity.
The US designated the IRGC as a terrorist organization on April 8, 2019, adding the organization to its Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list. It was the first Western country to do so. The IRGC, or elements of it, were already on a number of other US designation lists due to its activities in nuclear proliferation, internal human rights abuses, and terrorist and subversive activities.
In recent months, the UK too has made significant progress toward proscribing the IRGC in its entirety. Current UK Security Minister Tom Tugendhat is one of a number of senior British politicians who have long advocated the banning of the IRGC. (Full disclosure: this author submitted evidence to the UK House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee in April 2020 in support of a call to ban the IRGC.)
The issue has reemerged in the UK due to a number of recent incidents. The hanging of former deputy defense minister Alireza Akbari – a dual British citizen charged with spying for MI6 after a confession was extracted through torture – was met with outrage.
In November, Ken McCallum, director general of MI5, Britain's domestic security service, noted at least 10 recent plots to kidnap or kill British or UK-based individuals by the Iranian regime. This followed warnings by police in preceding months of two active plots by the Iranian regime to kill UK-based journalists.
The House of Commons voted on January 12 in favor of a motion urging the government to ban the IRGC. It remains to be seen if the government will now act on this. "Whitehall sources" quoted by the BBC in a January 3 report said that while no announcement was "imminent," it was "broadly correct" that the UK government intends to proscribe the IRGC.
In the EU, too, there is growing awareness of the nature of the IRGC and the threat it represents. Similarly, though, while awareness is growing, the final steps toward full proscription still seem some distance away.
On Monday, EU foreign ministers voted to impose new sanctions on 18 Iranian citizens and 19 bodies, including IRGC-related individuals and units, because of the current brutal crackdown on protesters in Iran. But while the European Parliament and some governments have made clear that they favor the EU's total proscription of the IRGC, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell this week said that such a proscription can come only if a court in an EU member state finds the IRGC guilty of terrorism.
In Canada, also, there are calls for the proscription of the IRGC in its entirety. On October 7, 2022, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced plans to expand sanctions against the IRGC and to introduce "a new tailored regulation to ensure no sanctioned individual connected to the IRGC can enter Canada."
On January 9, additional sanctions were announced on two Iranian individuals and three Iranian entities. Canada has designated Iran as a regime that practices terror, but it is currently resisting calls for the complete proscription of the IRGC on the grounds that this would affect individuals conscripted into the organization.
SO WHAT explains the sudden Western interest in the IRGC? Once, European and Western governments tended to see Tehran as mainly a challenge to regional countries. There is now a growing acknowledgment that the long-standing claims by Israeli and Arab voices that the Tehran regime and the IRGC represent a challenge to global order were not simply a rhetorical device intended to drag Western powers into a Middle Eastern contest.
A number of factors are informing this changed perspective. Possibly the most significant is Iranian active support for the Russian war effort in Ukraine. Iranian Shahed-131 and Shahed-136 drones are playing a vital role for Moscow in Ukraine, specifically in attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure.
The Ukraine war is perceived as the key threat to the US-dominated global order in the West. The growing alliance between Tehran and Moscow, which the war has produced, places Iran squarely on the opposite side from Western European countries, in a conflict that directly and deeply affects them.
Tehran's crackdown on growing internal dissent, and particularly its repression of women's rights, is the second key element in hardening Western perceptions of the Iranian regime. The key role being played by the IRGC in the brutal crackdown on the protests further strengthens the case for its proscription.
The failure of efforts to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreement is surely an additional element, though lingering hopes in this regard may also explain the reluctance of the UK, EU and Canada to make the final steps.
Finally, it's ludicrous that Iran is trying to portray itself as an enemy of jihadi extremism, which remains a central security challenge for the West. Case in point are incidents such as the recent attempted murder of author Salman Rushdie by a Lebanese Shia supporter of Hezbollah and Iran. The evidence of ongoing IRGC assassination plans on Western soil confirms this picture.
The time of the West's indifference to the IRGC is over. United and decisive action against it, however, has not yet begun.
Jonathan Spyer is director of research at the Middle East Forum and director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.