In recent months, the leading Western states—the United States, Britain, and even the European Union (EU)—have started to increase their sanctions against Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Still, only the U.S. has designated the IRGC as a terrorist organization, and the hesitancy of the others to do so speaks to a continued misunderstanding about the nature of the IRGC and the Islamic Revolution it protects and exports.
The First Tranche of Sanctions
In January, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned the IRGC’s “Cooperative Foundation and five of its board members, the Deputy Minister of Intelligence and Security, and four senior IRGC commanders” for human rights abuses—both domestically in Iran, notably repressing the peaceful demonstrations that erupted following the murder of Mahsa Amini in September 2022, and abroad, namely partaking in the IRGC’s regional terrorism through its Quds Force division, famously led by Qassem Sulaymani until the U.S. killed him in January 2020.
The IRGC’s Cooperative Foundation, previously sanctioned under counterterrorism and non-proliferation authorities, “is an economic conglomerate established by senior IRGC officials to manage the group’s investments and presence in numerous sectors of the Iranian economy, including manufacturing and construction,” according to Treasury. “The IRGC Cooperative Foundation serves as a slush fund for the IRGC’s personnel and their business interests”, Treasury goes on, “a wellspring of corruption and graft” that helps support “the IRGC’s military adventures abroad, including into the pockets of militant groups associated with the IRGC’s external operations arm, the IRGC-Qods Force.”
The five IRGC Cooperative Foundation board members sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury were:
- Ali Asghar Norouzi: “the chairman of the IRGC Cooperative Foundation’s board of directors. In his position as a senior IRGC officer, Norouzi has played a crucial role in facilitating the transfer of funds and weapons to regional proxies in the Middle East.”
- Seyyed Amin Ala Emami Tabataba’i: “vice chairman of the IRGC Cooperative Foundation’s board of directors and its managing director”.
- Ahmad Karimi: member of the IRGC Cooperative Foundation board of directors
- Yahya Ala’oddini: member of the IRGC Cooperative Foundation board of directors; and
- Jamal Babamoradi: member of the IRGC Cooperative Foundation board of directors.
The four IRGC commanders sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury were:
- Mohammad Nazar Azimi: “the commander of the IRGC’s Najaf Ashraf West Headquarters, the IRGC command responsible for the western Iranian provinces of Kermanshah, Hamadan, and Ilam”.
- Kourosh Asiabani: “Azimi’s deputy, … commander of the Shahid Kazemi Headquarters, oversees IRGC activities in Kermanshah province. IRGC forces under the command of Azimi and Asiabani have committed some of the worst acts of violence by Iranian security forces since the beginning of protests in September 2022. … Witnesses have personally linked Asiabani to these abuses.”
- Mojtaba Fada: “the IRGC commander of Isfahan Province and a member of its provincial security council, [Fada] has overseen the crackdown on regime opponents in Isfahan. During nationwide protests in November 2019 sparked by economic grievances, Fada ordered mass arrests and directed the use of live ammunition against unarmed protestors, during which over 20 people were killed.”
- Hossein Tanavar: “serves as the commander of the 17th IRGC Division in Qom”.
The final person sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury in January was Naser Rashedi, the Deputy Minister for Intelligence in the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS), previously known as VEVAK and known to Iranians as Ettela’at. Rashedi is deeply implicated against the Iranian population since the anti-regime uprising began last year.
Rashedi’s superior, the Minister of Intelligence, Esmail Khatib, a senior cleric, was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury in September 2022 for “involvement in malicious cyber activity against the Albanian government and its people”, motivated by Albania being the home base for the Mojahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), an Islamist-Marxist terrorist organization that helped bring the Islamic Republic to power, before falling afoul of its founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. MOIS/Ettela’at itself was previously sanctioned as an institution “in February 2012 for its central role in perpetrating human rights abuses against the people of Iran. MOIS agents have been linked to a wide range of human rights abuses meant to suppress the protests that began in September 2022, including beatings, sexual abuse, surveillance and censorship, and the coerced confessions of prisoners”.
Britain and the European Union coordinated sanctions with the U.S. at this time, though on different individuals and entities. The British sanctions notably included sanctions against Kiyumars Heidari, the Commander in Chief of the Iran’s ground forces, and Hossein Nejat, the Deputy Commander of the IRGC Sarallah, “the division of the IRGC responsible for the security of Tehran, where we have seen some of the most brutal violence against the Iranian people”. Britain also sanctioned the Basij, the domestic IRGC branch, as an institution. Britain added its own sanctions against the Cooperative Foundation in March.
The sanctions impose asset freezes and travel bans on the named individuals and prevent Western companies supplying to the IRGC and its front companies technology and components that assist in the surveillance and repression of the Iranian population.
Most Recent Tranche of Sanctions
The EU added a stand-alone set of sanctions in February, and in late April the U.S., Britain, and the EU coordinated another round of sanctions.
The U.S. Treasury sanctions on 27 April targeted the officials of the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization (Sazman-e Etela’at), which was established in 2009 by Supreme Leader Ali Khamene’i. The IRGC-IO is a parallel organization to the MOIS and in some ways more powerful than it, as well as being more uniformly and fanatically ideological. This is a common pattern with the Islamic Revolution, in Iran and in other states where it spreads: the parallel structures theoretically exist separately to the state institutions, while penetrating these ministries and ultimately overshadowing them.
The U.S. Treasury sanctions on the IRGC-IO were related to the organization’s role in taking Americans as hostages:
- Ruhollah Bazghandi: “the IRGC-IO Counterintelligence official. In this role, Bazghandi has been involved with the detention of foreign prisoners held in Iran. Bazghandi has worked on behalf of the IRGC-IO in several capacities, including involvement in IRGC-IO’s operations in Syria, and assassination plots against journalists, Israeli citizens, and others deemed enemies of Iran.”
- Mohammad Kazemi: “the commander of the IRGC-IO [since] June 2022. Kazemi oversees the IRGC-IO’s operations suppressing civil society in Iran and arresting Iranian dissidents, including dual nationals. He has also overseen the regime’s brutal crackdown against protests across the country”.
- Mohamad Mehdi Sayyari: “the IRGC-IO Co-Deputy Chief. Sayyari has been directly involved in arranging logistics for prisoners in Iran.”
- Mohammad Hasan Mohagheghi: “the IRGC-IO Co-Deputy Chief Brigadier General, [Mohagheghi] has reported to several of the senior most IRGC Commanders on IRGC-IO operations. Mohagheghi served as a liaison between senior IRGC officials and IRGC-IO officials on counterespionage operations in Syria.”
The EU’s coordinated sanctions specifically targeted “Ariantel, an Iranian mobile service provider, which contributed to the telecommunications surveillance architecture mapped out by the Iranian government to quash dissent and critical voices in Iran.” The British coordinated sanctions particularly targeted IRGC officials involved in the crackdown.
Tightening the Net on the IRGC
It is welcome that the West’s key actors have begun to name and shame IRGC officials involved in atrocities, within Iran and across the Middle East, and to shut off the IRGC’s access to Western resources that help them in this program. It remains disappointing that Britain and the EU continue to avoid designating the IRGC as a terrorist organization, however.
The primary excuse for not designating the IRGC as a whole is that it is a state entity, but this fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the IRGC. As an EER report in early 2021 explained:
The guardians of Iran’s revolution are not called the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps — they are the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. … [T]he IRGC refers to its members as “Mujahideen” — warriors of God — and … the standalone concept of “Iran” is not mentioned at all in its materials. The IRGC and the Revolution it was created to guard are fundamentally, existentially opposed to the entire concept of nation-states and borders, viewing Iran as merely a springboard for the perpetual expansion of a supranational revolution. The IRGC’s primary driver is an Islamic Manifest Destiny revolving around the divine mandate of al-Wali al-Faqih, Iran’s Supreme Leader, to lead the entire Islamic world. Remaining and Expanding (Baqiya Wa Tatamadad) — the slogan of the Islamic State — is no less applicable to the IRGC, which is conducting a proactive, constant jihad no less vicious and no less expansionist. … [The Iranian regime] can never stop cloning and expanding itself by its very nature, any more than the [Soviet Union] could.
It is welcome that this understanding of the IRGC as a transnational ideological terrorist movement, rather than a national army, is gaining acceptance in the analytical community. For the sake of peace and stability in the Middle East, it is something policymakers need to understand, too—and quickly.