Footsoldiers of the regime: Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei attends an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps ceremony in 2018. Image: Tribune Content Agency / Alamy
Now that the Wagner Group has been proscribed in the UK, there is all the more reason to consider doing the same for Iran’s IRGC, given both the immediate threat it poses to UK national security and Iran’s support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The UK government’s recent decision to proscribe Russia’s Wagner Group raises a number of questions over its refusal to proscribe the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the Islamic Republic of Iran’s praetorian guard that oversees its activities abroad. The IRGC has been identified as an ongoing threat to the UK by intelligence services, and has played an instrumental role in propping up Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The IRGC was initially formed as a custodian of Iran’s 1979 revolution but has since developed into a hybrid paramilitary organisation that represents a major military, political and economic force in its own right. In theory, it is an organ of the Iranian state. In reality, it is an auxiliary force that answers to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.
The IRGC has a hybrid nature, both undertaking its own operations and developing and directing proxies. It also lacks institutional oversight, allowing it to provide its state sponsor with an element of deniability. These complexities have complicated the push to proscribe it in the UK. To-date, the government has claimed that the IRGC cannot be proscribed because the 2000 Terrorism Act cannot be applied to state organs. However, this argument has been weakened by Wagner’s proscription under the Act. Wagner has long been recognised as a proxy and auxiliary of the Russian state, acting either on behalf of – or as a supplement to – Russia’s conventional forces in Syria, Mali and Libya but never formally integrated into the Russian state. Since its failed rebellion and the assassination of its former leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the organisation is in the process of being institutionalised by the state.
The government's argument that the IRGC cannot be proscribed because the Terrorism Act cannot be applied to state organs has been weakened by Wagner’s proscription under the Act
In other words, the UK government has set a precedent for proscribing organisations that could fall on either side of the boundary separating state institutions from non-state actors. This is welcome news for several reasons, not least since it prevents terrorist groups and hostile organisations from circumventing legislation by relying on their ties to sovereign state actors, while also retaining substantial autonomy.
Proscribing the IRGC would address what the government has referred to as the biggest threat to the UK. MI5 head Ken McCallum has warned of regime death-squads operating in the UK and their repeated attempts to kill or kidnap UK citizens. In recent weeks, it has been revealed that the IRGC is actively indoctrinating UK nationals as part of a recruitment drive on UK soil.
The UK is reportedly under pressure from the US to refrain from proscribing the IRGC, lest this undermines negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme. However, the Biden administration wants to avoid escalation with Iran for fear of disrupting its bid for a second term. This is a myopic policy that prioritises political expediency over UK national security. There is some merit to the argument that designating the IRGC could undermine nuclear negotiations, but the UK has already determined that Iran is in breach of its obligations under the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and is set to extend its embargo on Iran’s missile programme in October as a result, along with the EU.
Moreover, Iran’s ongoing support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is an escalatory measure in itself. Tehran has supplied Moscow with military drones that have played a decisive role in propping up the invading force. Despite Western sanctions and condemnation, Iran is doubling down on its support for Russia by developing a drone manufacturing plant east of Moscow. Iran has also attempted to supply Russia with missiles. In October, although the UK and the EU are expected to extend their own embargos, the multilateral sanctions on Iran’s missile programme that the JCPOA imposed will end, allowing Iran to rely on Russia and China to develop its missile capabilities. Russia will be free to work more closely with Iran on the Ukrainian battlefield, while China’s assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific will be reinforced.
Proscribing the IRGC would strengthen the West’s negotiating hand and create leverage in relation to both Iran’s nuclear programme and its support for Russia
The growing relationship between Russia and Iran, and Tehran’s indifference to the sanctions the UK has imposed in response to its partnership with Moscow, highlight the urgency of revisiting the government’s aversion to proscribing the IRGC. Proscription of the IRGC would also signal solidarity with the Iranian people as they mark the anniversary of the women-led uprising of September 2022. The regime’s security forces killed Mahsa Amini for refusing to wear a headscarf, sparking nationwide protests. But the regime has fought back. It has killed hundreds of Iranians, detained tens of thousands and re-installed its ‘morality police’, who have returned to Iran’s streets to look for and repress women who are not wearing the hijab. The regime is preparing for the anniversary of the protests by launching pre-emptive crackdowns to prevent the uprising from being rekindled.
Proscribing the IRGC would strengthen the West’s negotiating hand and create leverage in relation to both Iran’s nuclear programme and its support for Russia, and would allow law enforcement agencies to comprehensively address Iran’s terror-related activities on UK soil in ways that targeted and individual sanctions cannot. Proscription would also signal the UK’s steadfast support for the Iranian people, contain the IRGC’s malign activities in the Middle East and help address the stark contradictions between the UK’s support for the people of Ukraine and those of Iran.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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