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EU preps Iran sanctions amid focus on Revolutionary Guards

January 18, 2023

The European Parliament and the head of the European Commission have advocated labeling the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist group, as diplomats from the bloc finalize the next round of sanctions on Iran.

Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps carry out disinfection works as a preventive measure against the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic as part of the biological defense drill, launched in coordination with the National Headquarters For Fighting The Coronavirus, in 100 different points in Tehran, Iran.
Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps carries out all manner of tasks, mainly but not exclusively within Iran, ranging from military operations to policing or even, as in this case as part of a biological defense drill amid the COVID pandemicImage: picture alliance/ZUMAPRESS

As the EU prepares its next set of sanctions in response to Iran's repression of public protests, both the European Parliament and the president of the European Commission have spoken out in favor of adding the entire Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to the bloc's list of terrorist groups or organizations. 

Diplomats laying the groundwork for the next package of sanctions, likely to be announced at a meeting of EU members' foreign ministers next Monday, told news agencies on Wednesday that the details of the package had been finalized in the preliminary talks, without saying exactly what had been agreed. 

Iran has launched a brutal crackdown on public protests that began following the September 16 death of a young Kurdish Iranian, Jina Mahsa Amini, while in detention. 

She was detained for violating Iran's strict dress codes for women. Her death led to a growing protest movement, often involving young women protesting about the obligation to wear a headscarf, but soon expanding to more general displays of public dissent.

As well as numerous arrests, it has also started announcing a series of death sentences against people allegedly involved in the public unrest, sometimes reportedly in trials lasting just a matter of minutes. Four people are known to have been hanged on charges connected to the protests, among dozens of sentences issued.

A judge sits in a courtroom in front of Saeid Yaghoubi, who is to be executed by hanging, along with Majid Kazemi and Saleh Mirhashemi, for allegedly killing members of security forces during nationwide protests in Iran that followed the death of 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian woman Mahsa Amini, in Isfahan, Iran, January 9, 2023.
Iran has sentenced a series of people to death by hanging for alleged crimes committed during the public protests; critics call the trials a shamImage: Mizan/WANA/REUTERS

Furthermore, the IRGC stands accused of sending military drones to Russia for use in its invasion of Ukraine.

European Parliament calls for IRGC to be named terror group

While diplomats for the governments of the 27 EU members debated, the European Parliament passed a resolution on Wednesday urging Brussels to list the IRGC as a terrorist organization. 

MEPs backed an amended added to an annual foreign policy report urging "the EU and its member states to include the IRGC on the EU's terror blacklist in the light of its terrorist activity, the repression of protesters and its supplying of drones to Russia."

Support for the motion was overwhelming, with 598 MEPs approving, nine opposing and 31 abstaining.

Formed after the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the IRGC is parallel to Iran's regular military and generally considered the primary branch of the Iranian Armed Forces. It has ground, naval and aviation troops. Figures are dated and patchy, but it is thought to have at least a quarter of a million personnel in total. 

Designating the IRGC as a terrorist group would mean that it would be considered a criminal offence by the EU to belong to it, and any of its assets in the bloc would be frozen. It would also not be able to receive funds from EU citizens or businesses.

The idea of adding it to the sanctions list is not new, but has obtained renewed momentum amid the current protests; in the past those reticent to take this step have argued that it would further damage already icy relations with Tehran.

A protester holds Iran's former flag during a gathering on the Trocadero Esplanade facing the Eiffel Tower, on which the slogan "Woman. Life. Freedom." is to be displayed in support of the Iranian people, in the wake of the death of young Iranian woman Masha Amini who died in the country's morality police custody, in Paris, on January 16, 2023.
Protests in solidarity with Iranian demonstrators have taken place all over the world, including in European capitalsImage: Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images

Is it the European Parliament that decides? 

The European Parliament resolution does not oblige the EU to act, with authority for such decisions ultimately resting with the 27 member states, and consensus required to reach a deal — as with most foreign policy decisions. 

However, it adds further weight to similar calls from individual member states, and from European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on in Davos this week.

"We are looking indeed at a new round of sanctions and I would support also listing the Revolutionary Guards. I have heard several ministers asking for that and I think they are right," von der Leyen told reporters on Tuesday.

European diplomats have already said off the record that members of the IRGC would be added to the sanctions list in the upcoming package, without mentioning a decision on the group as a whole. 

The European Parliament is expected to make a renewed appeal of a similar nature on Thursday.

This is expected to go into more detail about which arms of the IRGC ought be sanctioned, perhaps most notably the paramilitary Basij militia that generally conduct domestic operations, including "policing morals" — or enforcing Iran's dress code in Amini's case — and often now responding to the subsequent public protests.

Iranian drones launching from the moddified back of a truck during a military exercise. Undated archive image.
The US and others accuse Iran of delivering drones to Russia for use in UkraineImage: irdiplomacy.ir

Have other countries taken similar steps? 

Britain, which left the EU comparatively recently and used to be considered a more hawkish member state on foreign policy matters, is expected to announce a similar decision in the coming weeks. The US designated the IRGC as a terrorist organization in 2019 under former President Donald Trump's leadership.

Australia sanctioned the Basij forces specifically in December 2022.

The EU's Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders on Wednesday told the European Parliament this week that he could "guarantee that all options allowing the EU to react to events in Iran remain on the table." 

Speaking to the Reuters news agency, the Finnish and Swedish foreign ministers appeared to offer diverging opinions on the question — albeit with neither offering a categorical opinion.

Finland's Pekka Haavisto said the "appalling" use of capital punishment, stalling on re-establishing a nuclear deal with international powers, delivering arms to Russia and human rights abuses meant it was "important we react strongly."

Meanwhile, Sweden's Tobias Billstrom said it was important to note that the IRGC was already on the EU's separate sanctions list for human rights violators, as opposed to terrorist organizations. He also argued that the EU's individual terrorist sanctions regime targeting specific people or groups was often a "tougher" legal instrument in practice and possibly a better solution. 

msh/wmr (AFP, dpa, Reuters)