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