“There is a lot more the EU can do vis-à-vis Iran” | A view from Washington

The European Union should list Iran's Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organisation, argues the Middle East expert Matthew Levitt
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The Iranian Army shows its rockets at Enghelab, Tehran, April 2022. Mohasseyn/Shutterstock

“You cannot say ‘I consider you a terrorist because I don’t like you'”, said the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell when asked by journalists whether or not the European Union will list Iran’s Revolutionary Guard (IRGC). A decision by a court of an EU country was a prerequisite, he argued.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, who had been one of the first senior politicians to float this idea, deplored Tehran’s behaviour. “The Iranian regime, the Revolutionary Guards, terrorise their own population day after day,” she stated, all the while acknowledging potential legal obstacles. Jean Asselborn, Luxembourg’s foreign minister, stressed a listing had to be “absolutely watertight” from a legal standpoint. 

Nonetheless, the 27 EU foreign ministers agreed on expanding human rights sanctions against Iranian officials to include a further 18 individuals and 19 entities. They also discussed the way forward on placing the IRGC to the EU’s terror list, though a decision is not imminent yet. Iran retaliated against the EU’s restrictive measures with sanctions of its own which targeted EU politicians, personalities and organisations.

Last week, the European Parliament had urged stronger EU action against the Iranian regime and called on the member states to “add the IRGC and its subsidiary forces, including the paramilitary Basij militia and the Quds Force, to the EU terrorist list”. The resolution was adopted on 19 January by a large majority of lawmakers in Strasbourg. They also stressed that sanctions should not lead to “any adverse consequences for the people of Iran as well as for EU humanitarian and development aid.”

The monthslong demonstrations in Iran that were triggered by the arrest of 23-year-old Mahsa Amini, who had refused to wear the headscarf in the required way and died in the custody of the so-called “morality police”, resulted in hundreds of dead and led to a wave of indignation world-wide.

But what can be done with respect to Iran, and what is the thinking in Washington? EU Watch spoke with Matthew Levitt, senior fellow at the Washington Institute and director of its Jeanette and Eli Reinhard Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence.
Protests in Iran are not stopping, despite executions

“The protests we are seeing in Iran today are different than any other protest movements we’ve seen there in the past,” said Levitt. And while there had been protests related to financial or even political issues, “they always stop at the red line of criticizing the regime, the Islamic revolution or the supreme leader. But that is no longer the case.”

The intensity of the protests has been varying, but the government in Tehran decided to further crackdown on the protestors by executing two more people involved in the demonstrations, in addition to those hanged in December 2022.

"The recent efforts to intimidate people and protestors by sentencing people to death, including a dual Iranian-British citizen [Alireza Akbari] are probably already having a chilling effect on protests although they haven’t stopped them."

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Thousands protest in London after the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody, October 2022. Koca Vehbi/Shutterstock

“The younger generation in Iran is overwhelmingly not fundamentalist. Young people do not want mandatory head coverings or a religious police.”

Since the string of executions, calls have been growing for a more assertive approach towards Iran. The European Union has so far adopted sanctions targeting 164 individuals (Iranian political and media figures, high-ranking police and army officials) and 31 entities (Shahed Aviation Industries; the so-called ‘morality police’; regional commanders of the IRGC, etc.). These measures in practice mean a travel ban to the EU countries and an asset freeze.

The Revolutionary Guard on the EU’s terror list?

Iran’s decision to provide Russia with hundreds of Shahed 136 (‘kamikaze’) drones has provoked international condemnation and facilitated additional sanctions against Tehran. The New York Times reported that IRGC personnel had been on the ground and trained Russian troops on how to use the drones.

Levitt noted that:

"The targeting of the IRGC is only partly because of the protests. It has more to do with what they are doing to support Russia’s war against Ukraine, what they do with their external operations, what they do to destabilize the region, because of their cyber activities by which they target civilian entities, school districts and water treatment plants. And those are just examples from the United States."

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President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy stands next to a downed Iranian drone, 28 October 2022/Website of the President of Ukraine.

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen backed calls for adding the IRGC on the EU’s terror list. “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,” she said during the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Levitt added that “designating the IRGC is a serious move that merits consideration. It sends an important message to Iran. They don’t like to be seen as a pariah state, as being outside of the community of nations.”

Whereas the European Union already lists and sanctions individual IRGC commanders under its human rights sanctions regime and has restrictive measures in place in relation to the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, it has so far not included the Revolutionary Guard in its list of international terrorist organisations.

Created in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, that list aims to identify and curb the activity of terrorists on European soil. Some of the more prominent names on the list are Hamas, the military wing of Hezbollah and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). There are several Iranian nationals on the terror list, as well as one entity, the Directorate for Internal Security of the Iranian Ministry for Intelligence and Security.

However, Matthew Levitt pointed out that:

"By any definition, the IRGC functions like a terrorist organization. These designations typically include immigration and visa restrictions. They would restrict the movement of IRGC personnel and potentially their family members. Many people would be surprised to know how many immediate family members of senior IRGC people go shopping in Paris, travel to London and send their kids to study in the United States."

Such a designation by the EU, he added, “would produce some type of criminal liability to prosecute people who are engaged in activities on behalf of the IRGC without having to prove their involvement in one plot or another – they are simply operating on behalf of a terrorist entity.”

The legal basis for listing an individual or organization as terrorist in the European Union is the following:

The list in the Annex [terror list] shall be drawn up on the basis of precise information or material in the relevant file which indicates that a decision has been taken by a competent authority in respect of the persons, groups and entities concerned, irrespective of whether it concerns the instigation of investigations or prosecution for a terrorist act, an attempt to perpetrate, participate in or facilitate such an act based on serious and credible evidence or clues, or condemnation for such deeds

A major point of contention is whether or not a decision by a competent authority outside of the EU’s legal boundaries can be used to justify such a listing.

Norbert Röttgen, the foreign affairs spokesman of the opposition CDU/CSU and a former chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Bundestag, believes that non-EU cases could be used as justification for placing the IRGC on the terror list. He tweeted: “There is no legal unclarity. The German Foreign Ministry knows that the terror listing can be based on non-EU cases, but it doesn’t say so publicly.”

In addition, while there is a strong political will amongst certain actors in the Union, legal challenges might not be the only obstacle in taking that step.

The IRGC, an official branch of Iran’s military forces founded after the Islamic Revolution, was tasked with safeguarding the integrity of the Islamic Republic, i.e the theocratic political system the mullahs installed after seizing power from the Shah in 1979. The United States and Canada classify the IRGC as a terrorist entity.

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Hezbollah, the Iranian-funded proxy militia in Lebanon. Their military wing is on the EU terror list. Crop Media/Shutterstock

Assadollah Assadi, an Iranian diplomat sentenced to 20 years in prison for plotting a bomb attack against a rally organized by Iranian dissidents near Paris, is on EU’s terror list. Also blacklisted are Saeid Hashemi Moghadam, deputy chief of Iran’s Ministry for Intelligence and Security, Ali Gholam Shakuri, an IRGC officer within the IRGC’s Quds Force, Abdul Reza Shahla’i, high-ranking commander of the Quds Force, and Hamed Abdollahi, a senior Quds Force official.

Despite the potential blacklisting of the IRGC, Levitt laments that the EU has not followed up on the listings with designations of individuals. “There isn’t a sanctions history within the EU. It has designated all of Hamas as a terrorist organization, but how many follow-up designations have been since then?” he asked sarcastically.

Moreover, listing a branch of a sovereign country’s army as a terrorist organization might pave the way for designating states or state-run entities on the EU’s terror list. Last November the European Parliament urged the Council to include the 141st Special Motorized Regiment (so-called Kadyrovites) and the Wagner Group as terrorist organizations.

The European Parliament also called for the development of an EU legal framework for the designation of states as sponsors of terrorism and states which use means of terrorism.

The Iran conundrum is also related to the EU’s desire to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA). And while the JCPOA is mainly tied to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Levitt considers that other aspects are also important. Tehran seems unwilling to stop its ballistic missile and terrorism activities.

"For Iran, the JCPOA is only limited to the nuclear file and is not tied to terrorism. So, by their own definition, a terrorism-related action has nothing to do with the JCPOA.

I was in Brussels [when the JCPOA was negotiated] and told people that this deal is going to fail. And the reason it’s going to fail is because Iran has no intention of stopping its ballistic missile and terrorism activities on top of human rights abuses. And there was no question that the international community was going to continue sanctioning those activities."

Is the nuclear agreement beyond salvation?

Back in December, Josep Borrell wrote on his blog that he still believed that “when it comes to nuclear non-proliferation, there is no alternative to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Those who think otherwise simply fool themselves.”

In October, during an interview with EU Watch, the foreign minister of Luxembourg Jean Asselborn expressed that “the alternative to the JCPOA is a nuclear Iran” and there was no “Plan B” in the EU.

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The foreign ministers of P5+1 and Iranian foreign minister Zarif after reaching the nuclear deal. State Department photo/ Flickr

French President Emmanuel Macron said on French radio in November 2022: “I don’t think there will be new proposals which can be made right now.”

Matthew Levitt agreed:

"The JCPOA is effectively on ice. It is not happening for a lot of reasons, one of them being that Iran rejected EU proposals and has not taken a serious position about moving the negotiations forward. It’s a meaningless statement to say there is not alternative to the JCPOA, if one party of the JCPOA is not willing to even negotiate. Borrell’s job is to make sure that the nuclear deal remains on some type of life support. But the JCPOA is not going to happen anytime soon, if at all. For the time being, it’s off the table."

And while the JCPOA talks in Vienna are effectively halted, the head of the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Grossi, came out with a stark message. He stated that Iran has “enough nuclear material for several nuclear weapons — not one at this point.”

In order to weaponize it, they would need to enrich to 90 percent purity. According to Grossi, Iran currently has roughly 70 kilograms of uranium enriched to 60 percent purity and around 1,000 kilograms of 20 percent purity.

European sanctions on Iran vis-à-vis Russia?

While the sanctions the EU has imposed on Russia have been massive and unprecedented and include an import ban on resources such as crude oil, steel, coal, the current sanctions on Iran seem small.

Asked for the reason, Levitt gave two reasons: 

“There isn’t as much of an immediate driver like you have with the war on Europe’s eastern flank. There is also the issue of Iran’s nuclear program. We’d much prefer if a revolutionary regime that already engages in all kinds of bad behaviour doesn’t also have a nuclear capability,” comments Levitt.

He added:

"The regime’s misguided decision to jump into a European war on the side of the aggressor by providing drones and other things that are used to target civilians in Ukraine has led to the international community to try and think what more can and should be done. The very first thing to say is that we are not going to continue the JCPOA negotiations or provide sanctions relief to a regime that is going to use them for such type of things."

“There is a lot more than can be done” when it comes to European action towards Iran, concluded Levitt.

Dr. Matthew Levitt is a Fromer-Wexler Fellow at the Washington Institute and director of its Jeanette and Eli Reinhard Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence. From 2005 to 2007, Levitt served as deputy assistant secretary for intelligence and analysis at the US Department of the Treasury.

In that capacity, he served both as a senior official within the department’s terrorism and financial intelligence branch and as deputy chief of the Office of Intelligence and Analysis. In 2008/2009, he served as a State Department counterterrorism advisor to the special envoy for Middle East regional security (SEMERS), General James L. Jones.

Dr. Levitt has written extensively on terrorism authored several books on the question of terrorism and terrorist groups, covering Hezbollah and Hamas.

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