The EU’s foreign policy chief was dismissive in January when asked about adding Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to the European Union’s terrorist list. During an EU Foreign Affairs Council in January, Josep Borrell warned, “It is something that cannot be decided without a court decision first. You cannot say I consider you a terrorist because I don’t like you.”
Well, the growing calls to add the IRGC to the EU’s terrorist list are not based on dislike. They are based on four decades’ worth of evidence that the Guard Corps is implicated in terrorism. Some of this evidence has indeed been the subject of court cases both outside and inside the European Union. In reality, though, such a designation by the European Union does not even necessarily require a final court ruling. Thus, some in the bloc may be dithering by citing legal requirements for a terrorist listing — which the Guard Corps in any event satisfies — as excuses to avoid an uncomfortable policy decision.
Before an individual or entity is added to the EU terrorist list in the European Union, the common position requires “precise information indicating that a decision has been taken by a judicial or equivalent competent authority.” Accordingly, this decision “may concern initiation of investigations or prosecution for a terrorist act or an attempt to carry out or facilitate such an act” or “conviction for any of those actions.” Proposals for listings originate from EU countries “based on a competent authority of a member state or a third country.” This means that sanctioning an individual or entity as a terrorist does not necessarily require an investigation, prosecution, or judicial process in the European Union proper. It can be undertaken by a third country like the United States. Likewise, no final court verdict is even required. The commencement of an investigation or prosecution by a government may suffice.
There is evidence that German authorities believe shots fired at an Essen synagogue, the firebombing of a synagogue in Bochum, and an attempted arson at a Dortmund synagogue in mid-November were the work of the Guard Corps. The Tagesschau news website quoted an investigator as saying “we’re talking about state terrorism here.” In France, Bernard Henri-Lévy was reportedly recently targeted by the IRGC Quds Force, which allegedly offered $150,000 to an Iranian drug dealer who in turn recruited additional conspirators to try and kill him in Paris. These incidents in Germany and France were clearly investigated, which could satisfy the EU threshold for a terrorist designation.
If European officials want additional grounds to list the IRGC as a terrorist entity, they can look to how the EU imposed restrictive measures on late Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, Quds Force officer Abdulreza Shahlai, and his deputy Gholam Shakuri, under terrorism authorities in 2011. On Oct. 11 of that year, the U.S. government indicted Shakuri and implicated Soleimani and Shahlai in an alleged plot to kill Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington by using explosives at a well known Georgetown restaurant. Only days later, on Oct. 22, 2011, the Council of the European Union decided to add all these men to the EU terrorism list based on the U.S. indictment and investigation.
IRGC Sanctions: Requirements Already Satisfied
In the end, there appear to have been recent active investigations of IRGC activity undertaken by authorities of EU member-states. There is also precedent for the Council of the European Union relying on the United States in adding individuals to its terrorism list. If EU officials are looking for a more recent court case involving the IRGC, they will find one from last year, when the U.S. government charged a member of the IRGC in an alleged murder-for-hire scheme against former U.S. National Security Advisor Ambassador John Bolton.
There also may be IRGC involvement in a recently unsealed indictment against three members of an Eastern European criminal organization in an Iran-linked assassination plot against Iranian-American activist Masih Alinejad. Although it is unclear from the indictment itself which Iranian security organ was responsible for the alleged plot — the Ministry of Intelligence and Security or the Guard Corps — EU officials should seek information from their American counterparts as to whether there is an IRGC nexus.
Thus, there is a compelling case to be made that the legal requirements have already been satisfied for the IRGC to be added to the EU terrorism list. In fact, it should have happened years ago.
Iran’s Regime Profits on European Soil
Some voices have argued an EU terrorism designation of the IRGC would be superfluous, since the Guard Corps is already sanctioned under weapons of mass destruction-related authorities. But those very sanctions are scheduled to be lifted under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action this year, in October. Imposing terrorism-related sanctions on the Guard Corps would thus hollow out the promised relief to the guardsmen under a potentially revived nuclear accord, even though the JCPOA appears all but dead in its 2015 form. The Wall Street Journal separately floated an alternative option of sanctioning the Guard Corps under human rights-related authorities. While the impact would be similar — asset freezes — the European Union should be sanctioning the guardsmen for multiple conduct-related offenses. That would go a long way in harmonizing transatlantic designations.
Furthermore, there is an important symbolic aspect to the IRGC’s addition to the terrorism list. It would join an international hall of infamy which includes the Islamic State. That is a comparison many Iranian freedom fighters have made, with chants during protests of “Basij, Sepah (You are our ISIS).” A terrorist designation would send a signal that the leading democracies of the world are on the side of the Iranian people, and not their oppressors.
The issue goes further still. As one Iranian businessman recently told Le Monde, “Former Revolutionary Guards who have been out of uniform for years and travel to Europe, as well as their children, are the ones who keep the Iranian economy going. It is precisely this category that will be affected by this measure.” There would also be potential criminal penalties
attached to the designation. Therefore, far from being a merely symbolic move, a terrorist designation would have substantive impact. It would be a way for the European Union to telegraph to Tehran that business cannot go on as usual. Iran cannot use European soil as a permissive environment to grow its illicit wealth and sustain the structural corruption of the regime.
Failures of Minimum Pressure
Others may contend that the Guard Corps in its entirety may not necessarily need to be sanctioned as a terrorist organization, and that only its Quds Force should be designated as such. That is an artificial distinction. In fact it was another division, the IRGC’s Aerospace Force, which directly attacked the Mercer Street merchant vessel with a lethal drone — the Shahed 136, the same model Iran has transferred to Russia for use against Ukraine. That attack resulted in the death of two European nationals in July 2021. Indeed, the IRGC’s Aerospace Force has been playing an increasingly direct and lethal role in extraterritorial operations. Further, other components of the IRGC, like the Basij and its Ground Force, support Quds Force missions. This interoperability counsels in favor of a terrorist designation of the IRGC across all its branches.
The Iranian system has reacted furiously to a call by the European Parliament for the Council of the European Union to add the IRGC to the EU’s terrorist list. This shows how much the Iranian establishment fears the designation. A similar series of threats took place as Washington designated the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization in 2019. It culminated in an Iranian sanction of U.S. Central Command as a terrorist organization, and the European Union should expect a similar response. However, despite the many hysterical, doomsday predictions, a war did not break out. In fact, it would not even be unprecedented for the European Union to add an Iranian state entity to its terrorism list — it did so in 2019 when it branded the Directorate for Internal Security of Iran’s Intelligence Ministry as a terrorist entity following a bomb plot outside Paris targeting an Iranian dissident rally.
The engagement-heavy, pressure-light posture of the European Union for years towards Iran has failed. It has not moderated Iranian decision-making, and Tehran has spurned and wasted the time of the bloc in its attempts to revive the JCPOA. This all counsels in favor of the European Union taking a more hardened approach to combatting the Islamic Republic’s abuses.
Jason M. Brodsky is the policy director of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI). His research specialties include Iranian leadership dynamics, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and Iran’s proxy and partner network.