Despite the EU and the UK parliament both voting overwhelmingly in favour of designating Iran’s IRGC (Guardians of the Islamic Revolution) as a terrorist entity, neither the EU nor the UK governments will be implementing their parliamentary resolutions.
The EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said the IRGC can be designated only if an EU court, not the Members of the European Parliament (“MEPs”), determined the IRGC was guilty of terrorism.
In the UK, it has been the Foreign Office, which has resisted the calls to add the IRGC to the existing UK terror list of 78 organisations. The existing list includes Hezbollah and HAMAS, whose paymaster happens to be Iran’s IRGC.
Tom Tugendhat, the Minister of State for Security, and the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, are, however, in favour of designating the IRGC as a terrorist entity and oppose the Foreign Office in this regard.
Until last week the UK Foreign Office had not revealed its justification for its refusal despite the mounting pressure it faced from the parliamentarians, the media and the Iranian expat community. Last week, however, the Foreign Office finally tried to explain its reasoning. This occurred after a new national security bill became law and an additional new sanctions regime was proposed, which is expected to get parliamentary approval this autumn and be implemented in Spring 2024.
Increasing Pressure on the Government
The Iranian expat community in the UK, who mostly oppose the ruling regime in Iran, have been very vocal after the recent nationwide uprising in Iran that became known as “Woman, Life, Liberty.” By staging repeated protests in the UK and pressuring their MPs, the Iranian expats have called for the UK government to curtail the Islamic Republic’s activities in Britain and designate the IRGC as a terrorist entity.
One Iranian activist, Vahid Beheshti, staged a hunger strike outside the Foreign Commonweath and Development Office, (“FCDO”, formerly the “FCO”) for 73 days. His hunger strike received widespread publicity in the British media and the political circles. Just about every UK-based news media covered his hunger strike and why the Iranian expat community is calling for the UK Government to designate the IRGC.
UK’s Minister of State for Middle East, North Africa, South Asia and the UN, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, and Tom Tugendhat both met with Vahid Beheshti while he was on the hunger strike, but although they sympathised with him, they failed to tell him what the Foreign Office’s justification was.
“Neither of them disagreed with anything I was saying. They both nodded and said they agreed with me but I still didn’t get an explanation from them as to why the UK Government is not putting the IRGC on the terror list,” Beheshti told me after meeting with Lord Ahmad.
Beheshti received the support of many UK parliamentarians who frequently visited him while he was staging his hunger strike. More than 100 UK MPs signed a letter addressed to the UK Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, backing Beheshti’s plea for the IRGC to be prescribed as a terror organisation. In the letter, signatories wrote:
“The Government’s decision to proscribe the Hamas and Hezbollah terror groups were important steps in combating the threat of extremism and terrorism, but the UK can ill afford to stop there.
“The IRGC is, after all, the primary financier, supplier, and trainer of these dangerous groups. It is incumbent upon the Government to go after the parent organisation.”
Four of the MPs who had signed the letter, personally came to see Vahid Beheshti outside the Foreign Office building in King Charles Street next to Westminster, before handing the letter to Rishi Sunak. The MPs were representatives from all UK parties. Labour MP, Steve McCabe, who said he supported Vahid Beheshti’s campaign stated, “The government has been far too soft for far too long and must finally listen to sense and proscribe Tehran’s terror army once and for all.”
The UK Foreign Office’s refusal to designate the IRGC, along with not providing a justification for its policy, prompted various rumours. Lord Polak, a Conservative Party peer in Britain’s House of Lords, suggested the Foreign Office was acting on behalf of a request by the Biden administration who thought proscribing the IRGC at this stage could jeopardise the ongoing negotiations with Iran. The claim however, was purportedly refuted by the US State Department.
In the beginning of this month, the UK Government announced it will establish a new sanctions regime against Iran that will give it greater powers to target decision-makers. A new national security law also came into effect on 11th July, to give the intelligence services and the law enforcement forces more power to combat the threats from “hostile states” against Britain, specifically naming Russia, China and Iran. The new national security law received the Royal Assent on 11th July after it was passed by the UK’s House of Commons and approved by the UK’s upper chamber, the House of Lords.
Why Not Designate the IRGC?
The Foreign Office also finally revealed its reasons why it was against designating the IRGC in the UK terror list. The FCDO argued that since the IRGC controls most of Iran’s economy, if it is designated as a terrorist entity, every company, factory, industry etc. will be on the blacklist. This situation will make it impossible to conduct any trade and negotiation with Iran. Further, since the EU will not follow suit, Britain will be left on its own. Instead, the UK Foreign Secretary announced plans for a new sanctions regime to hold Iran to account for its hostile and destabilising behaviour around the world. The UK Foreign Secretary, James Cleverly, claimed “the new sanctions regime will significantly expand the UK’s sanctions powers by creating new criteria” and replacing the current patchwork of benchmarks under which the UK can sanction Iranian officials and organisations like the IRGC.”
The new sanctions regime will provide four separate justifications for sanctions, all targeted at Iran. These are activities undermining peace, stability and security in the Middle East and internationally; using and exporting weapons and weapons technology; undermining democracy, the rule of law and good governance; hostile activities towards the UK and its partners, including threats to people, property or security.
The need for new measures is said to have been prompted mainly by Iran’s non-nuclear “bad behaviour,” and specifically the plans to kill or kidnap British citizens or residents in 2022.
Ken McCallum, the director-general of MI5, said “there had been ten ‘potential threats’ to kidnap or kill British citizens or residents during the course of 2022, with more plots this year.”
In response to the UK Government’s latest announcements, two UK think tanks, Henry Jackson Society (“HJS”) and the Policy Exchange have produced new reports demanding the UK recognise the IRGC as a state sponsor of terrorism. To add more pressure on the UK Government, the Labour Party’s Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, this week also called for the IRGC to be proscribed, and some Tory MPs are planning a cross bench alliance with Labour and the Lib-Dems on the issue of IRGC proscription.
On the legality of the issue, Jonathan Hall KC, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, argued before the new National Security Act became law that the IRGC or support for the IRGC, could be proscribed through an amendment that gave it power to proscribe state bodies on the basis of their hostile activity.
The HJS report was unclear as to whether the new National Security Law is equipped enough to provide the legal basis to proscribe the IRGC. Similarly, this report did not elucidate what the new law’s shortcomings are. Both the Home Secretary and the Minister for State Security have praised the new law claiming it will make Britain safer against the threats by hostile states, but there remain many unanswered questions until some tangible results are seen.
The new law has a section on Foreign Influence Register Scheme (“FIRS”) which stipulates any individual or body acting on behalf of a hostile state in the UK must register. Iran has developed a sophisticated network of influence in Britain over the years by exploiting the democratic freedoms in this country. Many people in this network therefore should register with FIRS.
One example within this network is Seyed Hashem Mousavi, the head of the Islamic Centre in Maida Vale, in North London. He is directly appointed by the Supreme Leader of Iran to propagate Iran’s version of political Islam.
Has he registered with FIRS? If so, how can one check this register? And if he has not, is he not breaking the law? And if he is, why has he not been arrested? British Iranian comedian, Omid Jalili, also addressed this question in his tweet.
At an HJS meeting this week held in one of the Committee rooms in the House of Commons, I asked the above questions of the panel. The nonresponsive reply was, with any new law before it can practically be implemented, manpower must be allocated. New departments must be set up and the right personnel must be recruited before it is possible to implement it.
So it looks like despite the new National Security Law and the proposed new Sanctions Regime bill, likely to be implemented next year, a hostile state like Iran has plenty of time to re-adjust and readapt its modus operandi against the slow bureaucracy of legislating and implementing new measures in a Western democracy like Britain.