The urgency for the UK and EU to proscribe Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)
By Dan Diker
The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) is mandated by Iran's constitution to pursue "an ideological mission of jihad in the way of Allah, that is, extending sovereignty of Allah's law throughout the world." This mandate is not theoretical or merely declarative. The IRGC is actively involved in terrorist operations around the globe and has therefore been deemed illegal by the U.S. government. Great Britain and Europe should follow suit.
Since the founding of this paramilitary force in 1979, the IRGC has emerged as the principal organization advancing the Iranian regime's revolutionary Shia Islamist ideology, within and beyond the regime's borders. Over the past four decades it has been linked to terrorist attacks, hostage-taking, maritime piracy, political assassinations, human rights violations, and the crushing of domestic dissent across Iran. It was more recently responsible for the bloodshed on the streets of Iran in November 2019, leaving 1,500 people dead in less than two weeks.
Iran targets its neighbors in its race for regional hegemony in service of its nuclear weapons programs and radical Shiite eschatological vision. Through the IRGC it spreads terrorism globally, and subverts governments in the Middle East and Africa.
The IRGC provides financial and other material support, training, technology transfer, advanced conventional weapons, and guidance to a broad range of terrorist organizations including: Hizbullah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hamas, Kata'ib Hizballah in Iraq, al-Ashtar Brigades in Bahrain, the Yemeni Houthis, and other terrorist groups in Syria, the entire area of the Persian Gulf, and Africa's Sahel region.
Within its borders, Iran has also harbored al-Qaeda terrorists who have transferred money and fighters to South Asia and Syria. In 2016, the U.S. Treasury Department identified and sanctioned three senior AQ operatives residing in Iran and known to the regime. These operatives included 9/11 hijackers transiting its territory on their way to Afghanistan for training and operational planning. The U.S. government considers Iran to be the foremost state sponsor of terrorism – spending more than $1 billion on terrorist financing annually – and there are between 140,000 and 185,000 IRGC-Quds Force partner forces in Afghanistan, Gaza, Lebanon, Pakistan, Syria, and Yemen.
In its efforts to export the Islamic Revolution across the Middle East, the IRGC advances radical Islamist groups, both Shia and Sunni around the globe including Iraq's Asaib Ahl al-Haq, which it armed, funded, and directed to conduct more than 6,000 attacks on American and British forces in Iraq between 2003 and 2011. Iran continues to threaten Israel openly, with its ideology centered on the destruction of Israel.
IRGC Terror in the United Kingdom and Continental Europe
The IRGC has been involved in extraterritorial activities targeting Iranian dissidents and opposition figures beyond Iran's borders, resulting in a chilling effect on freedom of expression and political participation among Iranians residing in the West. The IRGC is responsible for kidnapping and the extraterritorial and extrajudicial execution of journalists and dual nationals outside of Iran.
In the UK, dual British-Iranian citizen Alireza Akbari, who had previously held a senior position in the Iranian government, was lured back to Iran in 2022, arrested, incarcerated and then executed on spurious espionage charges, an act condemned by both UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Foreign Minister James Cleverly as barbaric. On January 12, 2023, the House of Commons voted unanimously in favor of a measure calling for the UK to proscribe the IRGC as a terrorist organization. In February 2023, the chief of MI5 reported foiling or exposing at least 15 kidnapping or assassination plots by the IRGC targeting UK citizens since January 2022 alone.
On the European continent, Germany also uncovered ten IRGC operatives involved in a terrorist plot within German borders, and convicted another IRGC agent for surveilling a German-Israeli group. Germany is also pursuing prosecution against IRGC operatives who plotted attacks against synagogues in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia in January 2018.
In Belgium, in 2022, an Iranian diplomat was convicted on terrorism charges for his role in a 2018 plot in Paris, and authorities in Georgia reportedly prevented the IRGC's attempted assassination of an Israeli-Georgian businessman in Tbilisi.
In addition, the IRGC supplied arms and drones to Russia in its war with Ukraine and in 2020 was responsible for shooting down Ukrainian Flight 752 with two surface-to-air missiles, killing 176 passengers and crew.
IRGC Penetration of the United States
The U.S. Department of Justice unsealed indictments against IRGC operatives in several murder-for-hire schemes on American soil including the targeting of former U.S. national security adviser John Bolton and former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. In 2011, the IRGC Quds Force plotted an attack against the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. on American soil.
Additional IRGC assassination attempts in the U.S. include those against Iranian-American human rights activist Asih Alinejad and Indian-Iranian author Salman Rushdie, whom the Iranian regime offered a $3 million reward for his death in 1989, upon publication of Rushdie's book, The Satanic Verses. Though the Iranian regime denied ordering the stabbing of Salman Rushdie in 2022, it offered farmland in Iran as an award to the young American who stabbed him, thanking him "for his brave action in carrying out the historic fatwa of Imam Khomeini."
The IRGC's Hand in the Middle East
The IRGC has targeted Arab countries and Israel for decades via its Hizbullah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Houthi proxies, among others. The IRGC has targeted Saudi Arabia via its proxy Hizbullah al-Hejaz, which carried out its first attack at the Haj in Mecca in 1987.
More recently, the IRGC has fueled Hamas rocket wars against Israel, with senior Iranian operatives maintaining a physical presence in the Gaza Strip since 2014 to advise Hamas operatives on drone operation and rocket production. IRGC has done the same for Houthi rebels in Yemen targeting Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, creating havoc in the Gulf. In January 2022, the Houthis attacked the Emiratis using Iranian drones and exploded three fuel tanks in an attack on Abu Dhabi airport. The IRGC funds and directs Bahrain's Saraya al-Ashtar, the military wing of Hizbullah Bahrain, which aims to destabilize the kingdom by radicalizing its domestic extremists. In June 2023, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei instructed the IRGC to intensify its attacks, via Palestinian terror proxies Islamic Jihad and Hamas, from Judea and Samaria, an area that overlooks Israel's main cities. IRGC officials assured PIJ Secretary-General Ziyad al-Nakhallah that Iranian weapons and cash would be smuggled to his organization and to Hamas in the West Bank, and demanded that rocket facilities be set up in northern Samaria, near Ben-Gurion airport, and overlooking the greater Tel Aviv area.
The IRGC also significantly supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government militias by providing them with military advisors, training, arms, and force coordination. The Syrian government and its allies, including the IRGC, have caused the deaths of over half a million Syrian civilians, displacing over 10 million people and creating a refugee crisis.
In Turkey in 2022, IRGC operatives were foiled in their plan to murder Israeli tourists and to assassinate Yosef Levi-Sfari, the former Israeli consul in Istanbul. The IRGC has also employed criminal gangs in various countries, including Turkey, for terrorist operations.
The IRGC also fuels tensions and war in Hamas-ruled Gaza, with its operatives involved in terror tunnel assaults against Israel. IRGC's Quds Force has made efforts to arm Palestinian terrorists in the West Bank by orders from their Supreme Leader Khamenei. In August 2022, following the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Operation Breaking Dawn against Islamic Jihad in Gaza, IRGC Major General Hossein Salami and PIJ leader Ziyad al-Nakhallah met, resulting in an agreement to enhance PIJ's activities in the northern West Bank.
Besides conventional warfare via proxy, IRGC-backed Hamas operatives have engaged in espionage, monitored Iranian-Israeli Jews' social networks, and obtained their personal details, which were submitted to Iranian intelligence with the aim of recruiting them into Iranian espionage rings.
IRGC Intervention and Narco-Terrorism in Latin America
The IRGC has developed a major presence in Latin America, primarily in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba, where Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi recently visited, calling his visits "strategic" against common enemies. The IRGC has long ratcheted up its presence in Latin America's tri-border area where Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil meet. During the visit, Venezuela's President Maduro declared his intention to install a bust of former IRGC leader Qassem Sulemani, killed in an American drone strike in 2020.
Iran has engaged in narco-terrorism and the use of organized crime – including drug trafficking, trafficking in illegal products, counterfeiting of products, human trafficking, smuggling of weapons, smuggling of immigrants, money laundering, and gambling – using profits for military, organizational, and terror operations.
The IRGC's narco-terrorism extends from Western Europe to Latin America. The IRGC is extensively connected to the Afghan drug trade and other international criminal syndicates to develop a network for distributing narcotics, especially heroin, to Western countries via Eastern Europe. Using its local Lebanese expatriate connections, the IRGC's top proxy, Hizbullah, is involved in narco-terrorism mainly in Colombia and Mexico. These funds enhance Hizbullah's military and assist Iran, allowing Iran to claim plausible deniability.
Narco-terrorism also includes terror attempts on the ground: In 2011, an Iranian spy attempted to recruit a member of a Mexican drug cartel to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington. This Iranian agent also intended to attack the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C., as well as the Saudi and Israeli embassies in Argentina.
The IRGC has also targeted Israeli diplomats and facilities in Argentina, India, and Thailand, bombing the Israeli embassy in 1992 and the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1994, killing 85 people.
IRGC Human Rights Violations
Within Iran's borders, the IRGC suppresses political dissent with deadly force, limiting freedom of speech, and stifling peaceful protests within Iran through the use of physical and psychological torture of detainees and other violent means, violating international human rights standards such as those against arbitrary arrests, prolonged detention without charges, limited access to legal representation, and coerced confessions.
The IRGC violates freedom of expression by arrest and detention without trial of journalists, bloggers, and social media activists, contributing to a climate of fear and self-censorship. The IRGC has been implicated in the execution of political prisoners, often after unfair trials, extrajudicially and extraterritorially.
There have been allegations of the IRGC targeting Iran's ethnic and religious minorities, including the Baha'is, Kurds, Arabs, and Baluchis. The IRGC has played a role in enforcing strict interpretations of Islamic law, leading to limitations on women's rights and gender equality in Iran, including restrictive dress codes, limitations on participation in public life, and discrimination in areas such as divorce, custody rights, and inheritance. The death of Iranian Kurd Mahsa Amini at the hands of Iran's morality police in 2022 and the protests which followed only drive this point home.
The IRGC Quds Force: Incitement, Subversion, Destabilization, and Radicalization
In 1989, Iranian leader Ayatollah Khamenei established the Quds Force – symbolically named after Jerusalem, Israel's capital, as an act of political warfare. Quds was founded as an extraterritorial "Islamic army" unit of the IRGC to "export the revolution overseas" by radicalizing foreign Muslims into the Iranian Shiite brand of Islamism to fight the "Great Satan" of the West, and "liberate Palestine" by destroying Israel, which the clerical regime describes a "cancerous tumor" and the "little Satan" of the Near East.
Similar to ISIS, the IRGC and Quds are ideologically-motivated movements. Inspired by messianic Mahdism, Quds seeks to trigger the return of the twelfth divinely-ordained Shia Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, a descendent of Prophet Muhammad. The IRGC recruits are taught that Israel's existence is the greatest barrier to the Mahdi's return, and that Shiites must battle against the Jews and destroy the Jewish state as a prerequisite for his arrival.
Iran has continued to arm and train Shiite militants through its Quds Force – the IRGC's international arm. Quds has provided advanced armed drones to Hezbollah in Lebanon, trained and funded more than 100,000 Shiite fighters in Syria, supplied ballistic missiles and drones to Yemen's Houthis, and helped Shiite militias in Iraq build missile capabilities.
Iran has also continued to develop ballistic missiles, which, according to the United States, violates UN Resolution 2231. In response, the United States continues to impose sanctions on Iran's ballistic missile program and the IRGC through the Countering Iran's Destabilizing Activities Act of 2017 and the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. The U.S. Secretary of State designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Quds Force as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) in 2019 as it "continued support to and engagement in terrorist activity around the world."
Quds was deployed to Syria in 2011, and by 2014, hundreds of their operatives including force commanders gathered intelligence and were directing logistics for Assad's government. In May 2018, Quds forces on the Syrian Golan Heights were alleged to have fired around 20 projectiles towards Israeli army positions, an action repeated in January 2019, for which the IDF retaliated. In April 2021, prominent Syria-based Quds operative Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Fallahzadeh became Quds Deputy Commander.
Quds' Radicalization of Muslims in Europe
Outside of Iran, Quds' messianic fervor has infected recruits in the West and elsewhere, with a surge of activity since 2015. IRGC propaganda has nurtured extremism in the same way as ISIS and al-Qaeda. Over half of the IRGC training budget is invested in their cult-like militaristic and apocalyptic indoctrination of recruits through the dissemination of terror-glorifying, extremist propaganda in mosques, charities, and schools.
The discovery of an Iranian-linked bomb factory in London in 2015, as well as the successive chain of terror plots across Europe from 2017 to 2018, suggest that IRGC interests go beyond the Middle East, underscoring the urgency in countering their movement. In 2018, a plot to bomb an Iranian opposition-group's conference in Paris, attended by British MPs and citizens, was foiled. By 2022, MI5 announced that there had been ten threats to kill or kidnap UK-based individuals that year.
Outlawing both the Political and Military Wings of the IRGC
There is a tendency in the West to differentiate between the political and military wings of terror organizations such as Hizbullah, Hamas, and the IRGC. However, this distinction is erroneous. Sheikh Naim Qassem, Deputy Secretary General of the Iranian regime's Hizbullah proxy, has declared repeatedly that there is no difference between its political and military wings. Qassem stated in 2012, "We don't have a military wing and a political one; we don't have Hizbullah, on the one hand, and the resistance party, on the other." Both wings follow the directives of Vilayat-e-faqih, or the rule of the Islamic Jurisprudent, meaning Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. As shown above, the IRGC cannot be separated from Quds – these two organizations work hand-in-hand to wage a hybrid political and military war using criminal, terrorist, and human-rights violations as means to the same end.
Building on the Momentum to Proscribe the IRGC
The intensifying Iranian regime repression and its threat to the Middle East and the West in the shadow of its nuclear weapons program have appear to move Europe and the United Kingdom to increase pressure to proscribe the IRGC. The UK's January 2023 vote to proscribe the IRGC was an important development. Significant statements of condemnation by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, UK Minister for State Security Tom Tugendhat, and UK Foreign Minister James Cleverly set an important standard for the West.
The stakes are high. A prospective agreement between the U.S. and Iran for sanction relief in exchange for cessation of Iranian uranium enrichment would inject some $20 billion to the Iranian regime's IRGC terror operations.
The U.S., Israel, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and most recently Sweden in May 2023 have proscribed the IRGC. U.S. Congress members urged Prime Minister Sunak on May 11, 2023, to proscribe the IRGC, adding an additional level of momentum to the House of Commons' earlier vote. On January 23, 2023, the European Union imposed sanctions on over 30 Iranian officials and organizations, including the IRGC, over their "brutal" crackdown on protestors which included human rights abuses.
Iranian-British activist Vahid Beheshti's 72-day hunger strike opposite the British Foreign Office in London, calling for the British government to formally proscribe the IRGC, captured the imagination of many in Britain, inside Iran, among its Sunni community, and around the world. Most significantly, for the first time, the IRGC warned the UK government to cancel a rally in support of Beheshti on April 29, 2023, which brought thousands into the streets of London in support of his struggle to proscribe the IRGC. Both the European Union and the British government have been called upon by their publics to proscribe the IRGC, which has become the world's leading sponsor of state terror. With the IRGC actively involved in Iran's ballistic weapons development and the regime's near breakout status – enriching uranium at close to 90 percent, weapons grade – time is of the essence.
Dan Diker, President of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is the longtime Director of its Counter-Political Warfare Project. He is former Secretary-General of the World Jewish Congress and a Research Fellow of the International Institute for Counter Terrorism at Reichman University (formerly IDC, Herzliya). He has written six books exposing the "apartheid antisemitism" phenomenon in North America, and has authored studies on Iran's race for regional supremacy and Israel's need for defensible borders.