Jonathan Spyer is founder and director of, the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis; Picture: briefing at the Centro Sefarad-Israel in Madrid 27 February 2023. Picture from EJP.
“IRGC is specifically and most importantly a gathering of people whose specific tasks and skills are the raising up of proxy and franchise military organizations in other countries where they can serve the interests of the regime in Tehran,” explains Mideast affairs expert Jonathan Spyer. Despite a resolution of the European Parliament urging to do so, the European Union has so far refrained from listing Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terror organization, writes Yossi Lempkowicz.
In January, the EU Foreign Affairs Council, which comprises the 27 EU Foreign Mininisters, only decided to a new package of sanctions against Iran in the wake of the répression against protesters, the use of Iranian drones in Russia’s war in Ukraine. Sanctions targeted high-ranking members of the Iranian security forces, including of the IRGC.
While the European Parliament voted 598-9 in favor of requesting that the E.U. list the IRGC as a terror entity. A resolution condemned “the brutal crackdown by Iran, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), on the demonstrations after the death of Mahsa Amini, following her violent arrest, abuse and ill-treatment by Iran’s ‘morality police.’’
However, Josep Borrell, EU’s foreign policy chief, said at the time that IRGC cannot be listed as a terrorist group ‘’without a court decision.’’
Jonathan Spyer, a Mideast affairs analyst and one of the best experts of Iran, believes the reason given by Borrell ,’’is notb serious’’.
‘’I think that this happened because of the influence of the professional echelon in a number of European countries, I mean the foreign services of a number of European countries who do not believe that the door has been closed on the prospect of returning tot he Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA),’’ the 2015 nuclear deal between world powers and Iran, Spyer said during a briefing in Madrid organized by the Europe Israel Press Association (EIPA).
‘’They don’t believe that this door has been conclusevely closed and therefor they do not wish to do anything to annoy or upset the Iranian regime which they fear might then close that door which is not yet closed. This is not unfamliar. It’s exactly the thinking which has dominated the views of most European countries on Iran during the last decades,’’ he added.
‘’A sense that because there is still a chance for diplomacy, you shouldnt close the door tot he regime, that there is still some pragmatism there that you can work with…’’ This is a ‘’big mistake’’, said Spyer, who is founder and director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.
‘’You also hear : what difference does it make to proscribe an organisation while we have laws in every European coiuntry, including counter-terror laws, so if an organization is suppoorting terrorism there are laws in the countries to deal wit hit, , why do you need extra laws? What does it changes ?.’’
‘’ This is completely incorrect. A deal of activitires of IRGC on European soil are not directly violent. Much activities can be someone standing up and talking. But Europe has learnt nothing of the experience of the last twenty years. A guy standing and bullshiting in front of other people can be very dangerous… Because how how these European-linked jihadi Sunnis in UK, France, Netherlands, Belgium and elsewhere y were programmed before becoming violent ? Through miseducation and propaganda conducted by Sunni jihadi organisations under the radar of European governments. The British gvt only banned an organisation called Al Muhajirun in 2010. I remembered mentioning tot the authorities the existence of this dangerous group. already 20 years ago….They told me: this is a bunch of clowns, idiots. They just talk And look at terrorists responsible for attacks, bombings…all of them learned their ideology from Al Muhajirun. IRGC is doing the same: poisoning the minds on European soil. But to deal with that you need to proscribe them as a terror organization. Because if they are not, they will say I am not doing anything wrong, just talking to a bunch of people. So this is very urgent indeed,’’ said Jonathan Spyer.
The IRGC was formed after Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979 and has become a major military force in the country, also controlling Tehran’s nuclear and ballistics programme and funding terrorist operations and assassination plots elsewhere in the region and in the world. It was formed primarily for two specific goals: defending the regime and exporting the Islamic revolution to neighboring countries through terrorism.
Its influence has increased under the rule of current President Ebrahim Raisi, who took power in 2021.
‘’This is a unique type of organisation. IRGC is not a conventional military group but can perform conventional military tasks. It is not an intelligence organization but it can perform intelligence tasks. It is not a para-military organization but once again it can perform such functions,’’ explained Spyer.
‘’But it is specifically and most importantly a gathering of people whose specific tasks and skills are the raising up of proxy and franchise military organizations in other countries where they can serve the interests of the regime in Tehran. This is a curious type of organization. Most countries in the world don’t have such one. But when IRGC tried to organize and raise such groups in well organized states, it doesn’t get very far. It tried to organize it in Bahrein, which has a Shia majority population but Bahrein rapidly came against them, it tried to organize in Saudi Arabia which has a large Shia majority, but it didn’t get very far. In Europe, IRGC planned terror attacks in Western Europe like we saw in Paris in 2018, when it tried to commit an act of terror against an Iranian opposition organization, in 2015 and 2017 it assassinated in the Netherlands two leaders of an Iranian opposition group, in Denmark in 2018 it sorted to assassinate an Arab opposition member, in London, it was discovered that IRGC was trying to hold a large amount of ammonium nitrate in an house.’’
Thanks to IRGC, Iran had succedeed in creating proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Irak Yemen and among the Palestinians.
‘’In 2012 and 2013, Syria’s Bashar Assad’s regime was facing probable defeat at the hand of the rebels. He could not find any solution because the regime was based on a very narrow pilow of support: Assad comes from a sect of Alaouites. A split in Shia islam. They form 12% of the population in Syria. The insurgency against the Assad regime came from the Sunni Arabs who form about 60% of the population. This fact was leading to his apparently inevitable defeat. He could not even rely on his army of 400,000 military who are mainly Sunnis. Luckely for Bashar Assad, this regime was aligned with Iran, which means that when he faced this predicament in 2012/2013, his aides could go to Tehran and say : can you help us. And luckely for him there was the IRGC and Major General Qassem Soleimani, the head of its external force, the Quds force. He told Assad: we understand your problem and we have the solution. We have the capacity to create for you an entire new arm: a parallel army, we can recruit it, train it, arm it and deploy it,…. This is what they did. They started to recruit some Alaouites, Kurds, Druze as well as Christians and Shias. This army filled the gap for Bashar Assad and enabled his regime to stand in the field for those crucial two years until in September 2015 the Russian air force came into the skies of Syria and closed the story as far as the insurgency in Syria was concerned.’’
‘’This is a concrete example of the application of the IRGC’s methodology which achieves very significant goal and victory for its local client Bashar Assad and more importantly for Iran itself. This is the method of the Iranians.’’
What is their goals ?
‘’They have two goals: one is reaching the Mediterranean, something the Persian empires have been trying to do since the Antiquity. There is also an ideological compenent: they are absolutely committed tot he destruction of the State of Israel. Ali Khamenei described it as a ‘cancerous tumor’ in the region. Theys seek hegemony in the region in geo-strategic terms: West towards the Mediterranean and south towwards the Gulf states,’’ concluded Spyer.