At a Foreign Ministerial session in Brussels, the 27 Member Bloc imposed a fresh round of sanctions on Iran but held back from designating its Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization despite calls to do so by the European Parliament (EP).
By Jonathan Hessen and Erin Viner
The new punitive measures were slapped on 18 people and 19 entities, banning travel to and freezing of assets in the EU. Those targeted include units of the powerful IRGC, blamed for carrying out a brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters and other human rights abuses.
Widespread mass anti-government demonstrations erupted in Iran after the 16 September 2022 death of Mahsa Amini in custody ,following her arrest for attire deemed insufficiently Islamic. The public fury persists despite ultimatums issued by IRGC, which has crushed dissent in the past with the support of its religious volunteer Basij militia. The IRGC was established shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution to protect the Shi’ite clerical ruling system; currently estimated to consist of 125,000-strong military with army, navy and air units.
The United States and Britain have also issued new sanctions against Iran, reflecting a deterioration in the West’s already dire relations with the Islamic Republic in recent months.
A list of those sanctioned published in the EU’s Official Journal included units and senior officials of the IRGC across Iran, including in Sunni-populated areas where the state crackdown has been particularly intense.
Relations between the EU and Tehran have spiraled downward amid stalled talks in Vienna to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal. Iran and world powers, including EU members France and Germany, have engaged in negotiations since 2021 to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, with discussions in a stalemate since September.
The bloc has also become increasingly critical of the continuing violent treatment of protesters in Iran, including executions – including a dual British-Iranian citizen: as well as its transfer of armed drones to Russia and the detention of several European nationals. The day just prior to the EU Brussels meeting, over a thousand people took to the streets of the city to protest against Iran’s arrest of Belgian aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele.
Sweden, which currently holds the EU’s rotating Presidency, stressed at yesterday’s session that those who were targeted are “driving repression.”
“The EU strongly condemns the brutal and disproportionate use of force by the Iranian authorities against peaceful protesters,” Sweden’s Foreign Minister Tobias Billström said in a Twitter post by the country’s EU diplomatic mission.
“We still see in Iran a brutal regime against its own population. The Iranian regime, the Revolutionary Guards terrorize their own population day after day. That’s why it’s important that we agree on a fourth sanctions package against Iran’s regime and especially against the Revolutionary Guards today,” said German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock.
While supporting the action, Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg also observed, “This is the fourth time we are introducing sanctions against Iran here and I regret that. I had hoped that via the Vienna nuclear treaty, we could bring Iran back to the negotiating table of the international community. Right now, however, the regime in Iran is on a course of confrontation with us, the international community but also with its own people in their country where it is trying with all means to brutally crack down on society’s movements.”
Vienna’s top diplomat went on to stress that, “The last thing we want is a nuclear arms race in the Gulf region. And the last thing we want is an Iran which at almost the speed of light is moving in the wrong direction, be it with drone and war materials shipments to Russia or with the crackdown of its own population. So, sanctions are necessary.” He added that such measures are bound to continue, as “unfortunately, we must keep up the pressure as long as Iran is indirectly participating in war crimes by sending drones and possibly rockets to Russia.”
While there has been unanimous accord on the need to further pressure Iran, last week’s call by the European Parliament to designate the IRGC a terrorist organization was evidently met with a cautious response.
While several EU governments and the European Parliament have made clear they want the IRGC as a whole added to the bloc’s list of terrorist organizations, EU High Representative Josep Borrell, who is also coordinator of the Vienna Talks, insisted that it could only follow determination by the court of a European member that the IRGC was guilty of terrorism.
“You cannot say ‘I consider you a terrorist because I don’t like you’,” he told reporters ahead of the Brussels talks.
Pointing out that the paramilitary organization has been under sanctions since 2010 due to its proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna said that the move to blacklist it remains under consideration. “We’re looking closely at it and nothing is ruled out,” she said.
Iran had earlier threatened the EU against blacklisting the IRGC.
“We have repeatedly said the Revolutionary Guards are a formal and sovereign organization whose role is central for guaranteeing Iran’s security,” Tehran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian told EU Foreign Policy Chief Borrell on the phone last Thursday.
“Steps taken by the European Parliament to list the organization as terrorist are in a way a shot in the foot of Europe itself,” he warned, adding, “It is necessary to respect mutual security in the world of diplomacy and increase mutual trust instead of following the language of threats and unfriendly actions. In any case of a terrorist listing, Iran will take reciprocal measures.”
IRGC Commander in Chief Major General Hossein Salami responded by saying, “We are not concerned by them (EP/EU) making such statements as whenever our enemies give us an opportunity to take action, we become stronger. The IRGC operates in the real world.” Leveling a threat not to test the Islamic Republic’s will to retaliate, he added, “Europe has not learned its lessons from its past mistakes. They think that they would be able to destabilize the massive IRGC, a force full of faith and will.”
Iran’s General Staff of the Armed Forces, which coordinates activities between the conventional army and the IRGC, also cautioned the EU against the step.
“The recent action of the European Parliament, besides having no precedent in international rules and regulations, will affect global as well as regional security and peace, and the European Parliament should be aware of such consequences,” said a statement from the General Staff of the Armed Forces according to Iran’s official IRNA news agency.
The statement also reiterated the Ayatollah regime’s accusation that Western powers are behind the unrest in Iran.