After the executions of opposition figures in Iran, the European Union imposed new sanctions on Tehran at its last meeting of foreign ministers. The responsible ministers banned 18 people and 19 organizations from entry, property and business. It was the fourth package of sanctions since protests against the mullahs’ regime began in September last year. Almost two hundred names are now on the sanctions lists, including several commanders of the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij militia that belongs to it. Some of the regime representatives now sanctioned are high-ranking – such as the Minister for Youth and Sports or the leader of the so-called moral police.
The ministers made no progress in classifying these troops, under the command of the spiritual leader, as a terrorist organization. Germany, the Netherlands and France asked the foreign service in Brussels to examine options for this. Parallel to the EU decisions, the US government, in coordination with the European Union, expanded its sanctions against Iran. Punishment measures have been imposed on Iran’s Deputy Minister of Intelligence and four commanders of the Revolutionary Guards, according to the Ministry of Finance.
The militia was founded as a volunteer army during the Islamic revolution in 1979. In order to prevent a possible attempt to overthrow the army, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini formed a powerful parallel army under his personal control. The Pasdaran, as they are called in Persian, now have an air force, navy and several secret services. Because of their control of Iran’s missile and nuclear research program, they have already become the de facto most powerful institution in the country.
From the point of view of many Iranians, the EU’s cosiness towards the Revolutionary Guards poses the risk of a coup. Because the longer the mullahs fail to end the street protests, the more likely it is that the Pasdaran will take power.
The Revolutionary Guards control a significant part of politics and the economy in Iran. Declaring them terrorists would be a blow to the regime in Tehran. It could react to this with secret service or paramilitary actions in Europe or against European institutions in the Middle East. The Iranian regime has expressly warned Borrell against such a step. The extensive network of informal companies and armaments factories of the Revolutionary Guards has only been rudimentarily identified by United Nations investigators who have been active for years. With their own mobile phone companies, hotels and airlines, they have a widespread economic empire at their disposal. The Revolutionary Guard currently conducts most of its international business through banks and shell companies in neighboring Iraq.
In November, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock campaigned for the Revolutionary Guards to be included on the EU terror list, and the European Parliament also voted in favor of this month. Such a step would be symbolic because the Guard as an organization has been subject to EU sanctions since 2010. However, legal problems are probably just one reason why Brussels is reluctant to declare the Revolutionary Guards terrorists. In talks, European diplomats have repeatedly said that they have not given up hope of being able to revive the nuclear agreement with Tehran at some point. The treaty aims to restrict Iran’s nuclear program and prevent Tehran from building nuclear weapons. Since this program is under the control of the Revolutionary Guards, putting them on the EU terror list would be counterproductive.
The Iranian foreign minister warned EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who is coordinating the negotiations, about this. Borrell and the foreign service he heads are therefore opposed to the classification of the Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization. “It’s not a good idea because it prevents progress on other issues,” said a senior official. Before the foreign ministers’ meeting, Borrell also made it clear that, unlike the United States, the Union was not in a position to declare the Revolutionary Guards as a whole a terrorist organization, even though they are largely responsible for the violence against demonstrators. The decisive factor is not “that the regime and the Revolutionary Guards terrorize their own population”. Rather, a common position of the EU states provides that a competent authority, usually a court, begins investigations into suspected terrorism in a member state and can produce evidence of this. According to Borrell, however, there is no legal prerequisite for this: the EU can only declare groups to be terrorist organizations that have been convicted of terrorist activities by a court in a member state or that are being officially investigated for this reason. So far, this has apparently not been the case with the Revolutionary Guards. “You can’t decide something like that without a court, without a court’s prior decision,” Borrell said. “You can’t say I think you’re a terrorist because I don’t like you.”
In contrast to Borrell, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock would like to send a clear signal. In Iran there is a brutal regime against the people, she said in Brussels. “The Iranian regime, the Revolutionary Guards, terrorize their own people every day.” The EU bureaucracy contradicted this, at least in part. As described above, several commanders of the Revolutionary Guards and a number of regional units of the troops were put on the new sanctions list. They are all responsible for “serious violations of human rights,” according to the decision. The accusation of committing acts of terrorism, however, is not raised.
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