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How the E.U. blacklisting Iran's Revolutionary Guard could undermine protesters

The policy could also torpedo the vital Iran nuclear deal.
Photo diptych: Close up of the European Union flag and members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards participating in a military parade.
MSNBC / AP; Reuters via Alamy file

The European Parliament voted on Thursday to put the repressive military force of the Iranian regime — the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) — on the European Union’s terrorist list. Though the move is symbolic, the vote is indicative of the mood in the E.U., and may foreshadow binding decisions by E.U. member states in the coming weeks. Such moves might satisfy the justified outrage in Europe over Iran’s support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the IRGC’s killing of Iranian protesters. But there is little reason to believe that it will soften Tehran’s hardline policies — or help Iran’s internal pro-democracy movement. In fact, it could have the opposite effect. 

Few elements of the Iranian theocracy are as despised among Iranians as the IRGC. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini established the military unit in April 1979 to safeguard the new revolutionary regime. Khomeini mistrusted the existing Iranian army, which he feared remained loyal to the ousted shah. Since then, the IRGC has “safeguarded” the revolution by killing and imprisoning human rights defenders and pro-democracy activists, as well as by systematically eliminating reformist voices within Iran’s political system. It has often sought Iran’s international isolation because it benefits financially from broad-based economic sanctions — the IRGC controls the smuggling economy in Iran that has emerged in the wake of those sanctions. 

Tehran’s support for Russia’s war efforts has dramatically shifted the threat perception of Iran in Europe.

To make matters worse, the IRGC also has the Iranian economy in a chokehold. The military organization has operated as a mafia, penetrating every Iranian economic sector and forcing private companies to pay it dividends. Examples of the IRGC benefitting from sanctions abound. Iranian economist Hadi Kahalzadeh points out, for instance, that former president Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” sanctions caused 13 out of 14 of Iran’s top private road construction companies to file for bankruptcy between 2019 and 2021; meanwhile the main IRGC-affiliated construction company, Khatam-al Anbiya, doubled the number of its road construction projects in that same period.

But it is neither the IRGC’s mafia methods nor its brutal repression of protesters — more than 500 of whom have been killed since September — that explains the full extent of Europe’s desire to adopt a much tougher stance on the IRGC. Rather, it is Iran’s assistance to Russia in its invasion of Ukraine through the sale of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, i.e., drones, that has driven the shifting mood in Europe.

Many capitals in Europe view the war in Ukraine as existentially important for the safety of the continent. While Iran was seen as a challenge, or, at most, a potential threat to Europe in the past, Tehran’s support for Russia’s war efforts has dramatically shifted the threat perception of Iran in Europe. Iran’s support for Russia has affected, for instance, European perspectives on the Iran nuclear deal. Though support for the historic agreement remains strong (a measure calling on the E.U. member states to reject the Iran nuclear deal was defeated in the E.U. parliament Thursday by 380 votes to 130), there are signs that European backing for the accord has dropped in the past months.

If the EU were to formally add the IRGC to its terrorist list through a binding measure in the coming weeks, it could prove to be the final straw that breaks the back of the nuclear deal, which is just barely hanging on by a thread as it is. The designation would make it a criminal offense to belong to the group, attend its meetings or carry its logo in public. IRGC assets in the EU would be frozen, and EU citizens or businesses would be forbidden to give money to the IRGC. In practical terms, the economic impact would likely be minimal as the IRGC is already heavily sanctioned.

The political fallout, however, is a different matter. IRGC officials have threatened to put the U.K. navy on its terrorist list in retaliation, which would mean that the Revolutionary Guards would treat the British Navy in the Persian Gulf no differently than it would ISIS. In other words, hostile interaction between British and Iranian navies in the narrow waters of the Persian Gulf will become more likely. Tehran may also retaliate by further limiting the access of the IAEA to Iran’s nuclear program. Measures of this kind from Iran have already created near-insurmountable obstacles to reviving the nuclear deal.

Indeed, terror-listing the IRGC was from the outset a tool designed to sabotage any nuclear compromise. The Trump administration blacklisted the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization in 2019 to make it politically next to impossible for a future American president to return to the nuclear agreement that Trump pulled out of. The measure has worked as intended, as President Joe Biden has caved under pressure from the Israeli government not to reverse Trump’s decision on the IRGC listing, even though it had proven a major hurdle to reviving the nuclear accord. 

But the fate of the nuclear deal may prove a lesser concern for EU decision-makers given the current political climate: Iran is supporting Russia in Ukraine, Israel is pressuring EU states to designate the IRGC and quit nuclear talks, and much of the Iranian diaspora has joined the campaign to pressure the EU on this issue in the hope that it will help protesters in Iran.

The consequences of a collapsed nuclear deal, however, have not changed. Without restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, the risk of a military confrontation that the West can ill afford increases dramatically. The U.S. and the E.U. are already bracing themselves for the potential political and economic consequences of a prolonged war in Ukraine, and tensions continue to brew over Taiwan. Adding the risk of war in the Middle East to the mix would be profoundly unwise

The pattern of the past four decades in Iran further shows that increased tensions with the outside world have only disempowered Iranian civil society.

Nor will such a conflict help the pro-democracy protesters in Iran. The examples of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria provide ample evidence that military conflict favors security elements within a state far more so than pro-democracy voices. The pattern of the past four decades in Iran further shows that increased tensions with the outside world have only disempowered Iranian civil society and the pro-democracy movement, while emboldening the IRGC and intensifying its repression of the Iranian people in its paranoid search for enemies within. It is a paradox that many of the proponents of the terrorism list designation argue (correctly) that the IRGC profits from its enmity with the U.S. Yet, these same proponents’ policy preference entails the West playing the role of the enemy the IRGC so desperately needs. 

Undoubtedly, designating the IRGC would give short-term gratification to many in the Iranian diaspora who have watched in horror the brutal repression of protests in Iran. But it would be a different matter if the measure actually reduced the IRGC’s ability to repress the public while enhancing the protesters’ capacity to resist.

For the protesters, at best, it merely signals the illegitimacy of the Iranian theocracy. At worst, it risks triggering a cascade of events that is more likely to turn Iran into Syria rather than into Switzerland.