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Source: The Guardian

Jul 6, 2023

UK shies away from designating Iran’s Revolutionary Guards as terrorist group

Government says it plans to instead expand sanctions criteria, in decision likely to anger many MPs

BY Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor

The UK has rejected calls to proscribe Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) as a terrorist group in favour of expanding the criteria by which supporters and companies can be put under sanctions.

The new sanctions regime will for the first time allow ministers to sanction individuals for their activities inside the UK, and not just in Iran.

The announcement to MPs on Thursday by the foreign secretary, James Cleverly, appears to resolve a long-running internal government debate over whether the IRGC, an Iranian state body, should be proscribed on the grounds that it had undertaken terrorist activities in the UK.

The IRGC, the Basij Resistance Force, the “morality police”, and Basij commander Gholamreza Soleimani have already been placed under sanctions, but proscription would have made it a criminal offence in the UK to belong to the group, fund or express support for its activities. It would have effectively labelled the entire Tehran regime as a terrorist group since the IRGC is so central in the Iranian military structure.

Proscription would probably have led to the expulsion of the UK ambassador to Tehran, the Foreign Office feared. It also knew that the EU was unlikely to take the step.

The Foreign Office said it was expanding the sanctions criteria because “Iran has increased its efforts to kill or kidnap individuals perceived to be enemies of the regime outside of Iran, including in the UK.

Since the start of 2022, the UK has responded to more than 15 credible threats to kill or kidnap British or UK-based individuals by the Iranian regime”. In particular, there have been claims of plots to assassinate reporters from Iran International, previously based in London, the Saudi-backed satellite channel beaming into Iran.

The Foreign Office added: “The regime has publicly called for the killing or capture of these individuals and in some cases detained and harassed the individual’s families in Iran. The Iranian intelligence services have developed close relationships with organised criminal gangs in the UK and across Europe to expand the capability of its networks.”

The refusal to proscribe the IRGC will likely lead to sharp political criticism. The Labour party had called for proscription under the 2000 Terrorism Act, or if necessary through an amendment to make it possible to ban a state organisation.

In April, 125 MPs, including more than 90 Conservatives, had also called for the IRGC to be proscribed as a terrorist organisation. The letter sent by the all-party British Israeli parliamentary group said: “The government must follow its earlier decisions to proscribe Hamas and Hezbollah as terror groups by going ‘after the parent organisation’ because it is the ‘primary financier, supplier, and trainer of these dangerous groups’.”

The Foreign Office added that following recent Iranian street protests the UK had placed sanctions on more than 70 individuals and entities for human rights abuses, including more than 29 individuals or entities affiliated with the IRGC. It was adding a further 13 names to the list on Thursday. In total, more than 350 Iranian entities and individuals are subject to UK sanctions.

Cleverly presented the proposals as a tough measure, saying there ‘“will be no hiding place for those who seek to do us harm”.

Critics claim the sanctions play an increasingly performative role since most of those targeted have no assets in the UK, or any intention of coming to the country.

The EU is interested in continuing talks with the regime over a mini-deal that would constrain Iranian nuclear activity in return for lifting the freeze on some Iranian assets abroad.

Under the expanded criteria, individuals and entities will be subject to sanctions in connection with the Iranian regime’s activities if they undermine peace, stability and security in the Middle East and internationally.

Sanctions will also be available in connection with “the use and spread of weapons or weapons technologies from Iran; for undermining democracy, respect for the rule of law and good governance; undertaking hostile activities towards the UK and our partners emanating from the Iranian regime, including threats to people, property, or security”.

The proposed changes will require legislation later this year.

Western room for manoeuvre in the talks on reviving the nuclear deal has been reduced by western voters’ anger at the regime’s crackdown in the wake of the street protests, including a wave of executions, and by the Iranian regime’s sale of drones to Russia that have been used to attack civilian targets in Ukraine.

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