August 8, 2023 - 1:00pm

In January, I reported on the growing alarm within the UK Government at Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). That month, the UK placed sanctions on Iranian officials after the regime executed dual British-Iranian national Alireza Akbari, with the House of Commons then passing a motion calling on the UK Government to finally proscribe the IRGC as a terrorist organisation. The vote passed unanimously in favour, though it’s not binding.

Since then, progress on this issue seems to have consisted mostly of internal Government infighting over the implementation of any actual policy. The group remains firmly off the terror organisation list, and we now have something of a standoff between Home Secretary Suella Braverman and Foreign Secretary James Cleverly. The former is advocating for rapid proscription and fears a threat to British citizens, especially leading Jewish figures. Cleverly, however, sees such a move as counterproductive. 

That the IRGC is a clear and immediate danger seems obvious. In 2022, MI5 acknowledged a real threat from Iran’s “aggressive intelligence services” to kidnap or kill people based in the UK. In 2019, the United States designated the IRGC a terrorist organisation, prompting the UK to consider doing the same. 

The Foreign Office has thus far opted for expanding sanctions on Iran — specifically giving the UK increased powers to target the country’s key decision-makers — but is reluctant to impose full proscription. At the same time, the FCDO is frustrated at the insinuation from some quarters that it is somehow “soft” on Iran. The charge is indeed unfair: I have dealt with those responsible for the Iran file over many years and know them to be some of our most impressive Government experts. They have no illusions whatsoever about the Islamic Republic, let alone the IRGC.

On one level, this is a perennial debate between those concerned with security and those responsible for British diplomacy. Iran is already difficult enough to deal with, and we do have to deal with the country if we want to contain its nuclear threat — which, trust me on this, we really, really need to do. If one sanctions a group that is part of the Iranian state, how does one then negotiate with that state?

Set against this is the fact that the IRGC is unquestionably a terrorist organisation. It is responsible not only for mass murder across the Middle East, but also atrocities against Jewish targets in South America. It differs only from other proscribed groups in the United Kingdom, including its partner Hezbollah, in size and scope. 

What makes the IRGC such a threat is that it also wages political and ideological warfare. It was the IRGC that organised many of Iraq’s Shia parties into a formidable election bloc; it was the IRGC that originally taught Hezbollah how to become a political party and social actor in Lebanon; and it is the IRGC that is now committed to penetrating the UK through an array of ostensibly religious and cultural institutions. 

I think that proscription is probably inevitable now. The public and governmental clamour is just too loud. The question then arises: what next? Because make no mistake, it is the nuclear issue that will then have to be addressed — for the sake of global security. 

David Patrikarakos is UnHerd‘s foreign correspondent. His latest book is War in 140 characters: how social media is reshaping conflict in the 21st century. (Hachette)