Making the Case for the UK to Proscribe Iran’s IRGC

Global Challenges Counter-extremism

Making the Case for the UK to Proscribe Iran’s IRGC

Briefing
Posted on: 17th January 2023
Kasra Aarabi
Iran Programme Lead
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    Introduction

    Introduction

    The UK government must move to proscribe Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). On 12 January 2023, the House of Commons debated a motion calling for the government to swiftly take this action, with the vote unanimously in favour.

    The IRGC is a violent, Islamist-extremist organisation that operates no differently to proscribed groups in the United Kingdom, including the Islamic State (ISIS), al-Qaeda and Hizbullah. This is apparent from its formal programme of indoctrination designed to radicalise members to adopt its hardline Islamist-extremist ideology as well as its use of terrorism, militancy, hostage-taking and hijacking as a modus operandi.

    Formally banning or proscribing the IRGC as a terrorist organisation will send a clear message to the clerical regime in Iran that the terrorism and militancy pursued through the Guard, including on UK soil, will not be tolerated. Proscription would not close the door to diplomatic engagement with Tehran – as has been seen in the case of continuing diplomacy with the Lebanese government after the full proscription of Hizbullah in 2019.

    The move will also provide the UK government, civil-society groups and technology companies with a clear mandate to more effectively protect against homegrown IRGC and Shia-Islamist extremism and radicalisation through outright bans on activities linked to the Guard in the UK.

    Why Take This Action Today?

    As captured by the Tony Blair Institute’s work on Iran since 2020 – the year in which our original research on the IRGC’s indoctrination manuals, including our recommendation to proscribe, was published, presented and later accepted by the UK’s Foreign Affairs Committee – the reasons are compelling:

    • For more than 43 years, the IRGC has been responsible for plotting global terrorist attacks, hostage-taking and other offences on foreign soil – including in Europe and the UK – as well as human-rights violations in Iran.
    • Since 2015, there has been a surge in IRGC activity in the UK, Europe and the United States. Most recently, MI5 acknowledged the real threat from Iran’s “aggressive intelligence services” to kidnap or kill UK-based people in 2022.
    • IRGC-related propaganda efforts to nurture homegrown extremism on UK soil are also escalating and bear a similarity to those pursued by ISIS and al-Qaeda. Radicalisation by the IRGC includes the dissemination of Islamist-extremism propaganda designed to recruit Western nationals for terror-related operations as well as activities in the UK promoting the Guard and its ideology, including at mosques, charities and schools.
    • The IRGC remains the biggest supporter of Hizbullah, a proscribed organisation in the UK. Efforts to restrict the latter’s activities will be undermined as long as this support goes unchecked.
    • The IRGC is committed to “armed resistance to the state of Israel and aims to seize all Palestinian territories and Jerusalem from Israel. It supports terrorism in Iraq and the Palestinian territories”. These are the same grounds upon which Hizbullah was proscribed.
    • Indoctrination represents more than 50 per cent of the IRGC’s overall training efforts. The aim is to create more radical and committed generations – both members and their families – through indoctrination into what is, in essence, a militaristic and increasingly apocalyptic cult; this strategy appears to be paying dividends.

    The IRGC fits all the criteria for proscription by the UK government under the Terrorism Act 2000.

    What Is the Nature of Iran’s IRGC?

    What Is the Nature of Iran’s IRGC?

    The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is not a conventional armed force. The Guard began as an umbrella group of Islamist militias that helped to violently consolidate the ruling clergy’s grip over post-revolutionary Iran.1 https://institute.global/policy/irgc-age-ebrahim-raisi It has also been the clerical regime’s main organ for exporting its Islamic revolution across the Muslim world. This role is enshrined in the Islamic Republic of Iran’s 1979 constitution under which the IRGC is established as an “ideological army” – in contrast to the regular and conventional armed force called the Artesh – with “an ideological mission of jihad in God’s way; that is extending sovereignty of God’s law throughout the world”.2 https://www.constituteproject.org/constitution/Iran_1989.pdf?lang=en

    Upon assuming the mantle of supreme leader of the Islamic Republic in 1989, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei doubled down on the objective of exporting the Islamic revolution by establishing a new branch of the IRGC, known as the Quds (Jerusalem) Force. Its name signifies the Guard’s primary and official objective to “liberate” Jerusalem through the destruction of the state of Israel.3 https://institute.global/policy/view-tehran-irans-militia-doctrine

    While the IRGC has evolved into a professionalised paramilitary force, it has remained true to its DNA as an Islamist militia group. This is reflected in its practices whether its formal programme of ideological indoctrination to radicalise all recruits and their families or its use of terrorism, hostage-taking and hijacking as its primary modus operandi.

    What Are They Teaching Their Recruits? Ideology and Radicalisation

    Just as groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda spend resources on radicalising their fighters, the IRGC does the same. In fact, the same Quranic verses used by ISIS and al-Qaeda to give them religious legitimacy to wage jihad also appear in the IRGC’s indoctrination materials.4 Ibid Today, more than 50 per cent of IRGC training is ideological indoctrination.

    Research by the Tony Blair Institute in 2020 exposed – for the first time – the internal training manuals used by the IRGC to radicalise recruits as part of its indoctrination programme.5 https://institute.global/policy/beyond-borders-expansionist-ideology-irans-islamic-revolutionary-guard-corps This evidence clearly showed that the ideology of the IRGC is both violent and extremist, and is based on a distortion of Islamic scripture no different to proscribed Islamist groups in the UK – from Hizbullah to ISIS and al-Qaeda.

    The IRGC justifies, glorifies and prioritises armed jihad against what it describes as the “enemies of Islam”, identified as non-Muslims and opponents of the regime (including Muslims).6 Ibid The materials used to radicalise the IRGC’s members explicitly calls on recruits to kill Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians through armed jihad because they “do not have true and acceptable faith” while underlining that it is “obligatory for Muslims to fight them to pressure them to give up their devious beliefs and to accept Islam”.7 Ibid The IRGC’s indoctrination materials also require its members to torture Iranians who oppose the Islamic Republic prior to their execution on the basis they are “waging war against God” (moharebs). The Guard’s textbooks outline four specific punishments for moharebs: “execution, hanging, cross-amputation (cutting off a hand and the opposite foot) and exile.”8 Ibid The ongoing and recent protests in Iran have resulted in several protestors being executed and tortured on the charges of being a mohareb.

    The material also teaches IRGC members that Khamenei has the “same authority of the Prophet and the infallible Imams” and therefore has a responsibility to “spread Islam to other countries and regions of the world”.9 Ibid

    The IRGC’s goal to create more radical and extremist generations through indoctrination is paying dividends. Original research by the Tony Blair Institute into the IRGC’s ranks has revealed there is a rising militaristic and apocalyptic cult of Mahdism, consistent with Khamenei’s efforts to nurture a more extremist – and therefore committed – organisation.10 https://www.mei.edu/publications/irans-revolutionary-guard-and-rising-cult-mahdism-missiles-and-militias-apocalypse This cult sees the IRGC as a military vehicle for removing what it calls “barriers” to the return of the Twelfth divinely ordained Shia imam. Shia Muslims believe that Muhammad al-Mahdi, thought to be a descendent of the Prophet Muhammad and otherwise known as the “hidden imam”, was withdrawn into occultation in 874AD.11 Ibid While Mahdism is rooted in the belief that Imam Mahdi will one day return to rid the world of evil and injustice, this militaristic cult, embedded among the Guard’s third and fourth generations, wants to speed up this event. Equally, IRGC recruits are being taught that the biggest barrier to his return is the existence of Israel. According to this doctrine, which today is being used to radicalise IRGC recruits, “Shia Muslims will be on the side of the war against the Jews” and “the Jewish state will be destroyed before Mahdi’s arrival”.12 Ibid

    The rise of this Mahdist cult among the IRGC’s senior ranks is now a genuine possibility – and no longer inconceivable. More concerningly, if the three pillars of the IRGC’s foreign policy – a militia network, ballistic missiles and nuclear programme – come under the control of the cult, there could be far-reaching consequences. Even if a handful of these Mahdists occupy senior ranks, it is possible they may seek to speed up the hidden imam’s return. This would have major implications for the policies being advocated for by the cult, including positioning Israel’s existence as the “main barrier” to Mahdi’s return.13 Ibid A militaristic Mahdist mindset at the centre of the IRGC’s strategic leadership could make it more prone to operating as an agent of the “coming apocalypse”, resulting in a far more destructive, unpredictable and volatile group – not dissimilar to ISIS between 2014 and 2016.

    Today, the IRGC can most accurately be defined as an ideological organisation.

    Has the IRGC Been Involved in Terrorism or Acts of Militancy?

    Has the IRGC Been Involved in Terrorism?

    For more than 43 years, the IRGC has been responsible for plotting and executing global terrorist attacks, hostage-taking, maritime piracy and political assassinations on foreign soil – including in Europe and the UK – as well as human-rights violations and the suppression of domestic dissent in Iran.14 https://institute.global/policy/irgc-global-tracker

    In 1989, Khamenei established the Quds Force as an extraterritorial unit of the IRGC that would act as an Islamic army with a mandate to export the revolution overseas and “liberate Palestine” through the destruction of Israel – which the clerical regime describes as the “Zionist regime” and a “cancerous tumour” that must be “eradicated”.15 https://institute.global/policy/view-tehran-irans-militia-doctrine The destruction of Israel is at the heart of the IRGC’s Shia Islamist-extremist ideology, with the Guard the main force pushing for this across the Middle East today.

    Since its creation, the IRGC has also worked tirelessly to nurture Shia militancy across the Middle East: creating, arming, training and financing some of the deadliest Islamist terrorist groups in the world. This includes the likes of Hizbullah, which it created to destroy Israel and export the Islamic Revolution to Lebanon, and Iraq’s Asaib Ahl al-Haq, which it armed to conduct more than 6,000 attacks on American and British forces in Iraq between 2003 and 2011.16 Ibid

    The Guard’s relationship with terrorism is not restricted to Shia extremists. It also supports Sunni Islamist groups from Hamas to Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and has armed and collaborated with al-Qaeda and the Taliban.17 https://english.alarabiya.net/views/2021/09/01/Iran-s-game-in-Afghanistan-should-worry-the-West

    Since 2015, there has also been a surge in IRGC activity in Europe and the US.18 https://institute.global/policy/irgc-global-tracker The discovery of an Iranian-linked bomb factory in London in 2015 as well as the successive chain of terror plots across Europe from 2017 to 2018 suggest the interests of the Guard go beyond the Middle East while underscoring the urgency in countering the challenges it poses.

    Figure 1 – Mapping the activities of the IRGC around the world since 1979

    Mapping the IRGC’s Global Activity, 1979–present

    Click to view our interactive map and timeline of IRGC activity

    Source: TBI

    Recent terror activity includes a foiled plot in 2018 to bomb an Iranian opposition-group’s conference in Paris, which was attended by British MPs and citizens.19 https://www.arabnews.com/node/1769311/world Additionally, a surge in IRGC-related activity on UK soil in 2022 saw the head of MI5 announce there had been ten threats to kill or kidnap UK-based individuals that year.20 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-63647366

    How Would the UK Proscribing the IRGC Affect Other Iran Policy?

    A constructive dialogue between the West and Iran cannot happen without firm conditions imposed by the West. While the Islamic Republic pursues terrorism and militancy through the IRGC on European and UK soil – including the successive, foiled Iran-linked terror plots and assassinations since 2015 – attempts to cooperate with the regime are futile.

    Proscribing the IRGC as a terrorist organisation would not close the door to diplomacy with Tehran. Rather, it would send a strong and clear message to Khamenei that the regime’s terrorism and militancy as pursued through the IRGC – including its support for designated terrorist groups in the UK, such as Hizbullah – will not be tolerated.

    Just as the UK underlined that its decision to proscribe Hizbullah has not disrupted its commitment to diplomatic engagement with the Lebanese government, proscribing the IRGC should not impede similar engagement with the government of the Islamic Republic.

    Rising IRGC Activity and the Homegrown Radicalisation Threat in the UK

    Homegrown Radicalisation in the UK

    Proscribing the IRGC as a terrorist organisation is more important in the UK than ever before. There was a significant escalation of IRGC-related activity on UK soil in 2022, including foiled terror plots and assassination attempts. On 7 November 2022, two British-Iranian journalists in London were warned by UK police of credible and imminent death threats to their life from the IRGC’s agents.21 https://www.theguardian.com/media/2022/nov/11/foreign-office-asks-iran-to-explain-alleged-death-threats-to-uk-based-reporters This assassination plot was followed by Ken McCallum, Director General of the Security Service (MI5), announcing there had been at least ten “potential threats” from Iran’s “aggressive intelligence services” to kidnap or kill UK-based people since January 2022.22 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-63647366

    This growing pattern has been evident over the past few years.23 https://institute.global/policy/uk-integrated-review-global-britain-will-challenge-threat-irans-regime-beyond-nuclear-deal In just one example, UK police discovered an Iranian-linked bomb factory in London in autumn 2015.24 https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2019/06/09/iran-linked-terrorists-caught-stockpiling-explosives-north-west/

    The Escalating Homegrown Radicalisation Threat in the West

    As well as conducting terror activity, the IRGC has doubled down on its efforts to nurture homegrown Islamist radicalisation in the UK, using similar tactics to ISIS and al-Qaeda.25 https://conservativehome.com/2022/08/26/kasra-aarabi-the-rushdie-attack-should-be-a-wake-up-call-about-the-threat-of-shia-extremism/ This strategy has included the dissemination of the IRGC’s Islamist-extremism propaganda to recruit and radicalise Western nationals for terror-related operations. The attack by a US citizen of Lebanese decent on British-American author Salman Rushdie as he prepared to speak at an event in the US is a prime example, with reports revealing the suspect had been engaging with the IRGC’s propaganda and that he had been in contact with the IRGC over social media ahead of the attack.26 https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/crime/hadi-matar-salman-rushdie-new-jersey-b2147123.html

    The IRGC’s commanders and the regime’s officials have openly called for homegrown Islamist terrorism in the West. After the Rushdie attack, Javad Karimi-Ghodousi, a member of the Iranian parliament’s national-security and foreign-policy committee, declared on 15 August 2022: “[the Islamic Republic does not need to send IRGC members to terrorise Bolton and Pompeo] as there are zealous individuals in America, who are aware of our positions and have fire at their disposal, they will take revenge on the likes of Trump and Pompeo.”27 https://bit.ly/3INEziK On 3 January 2023, IRGC Commander Mohammad Bagheri alluded to homegrown attacks in the West to “avenge” the death of Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani, stating: “Revenge against the masterminds and perpetrators of General Soleimani’s assassination will never be removed from the agenda of the youths of the Muslim world and his devotees across the world.”28 https://www.timesofisrael.com/top-iranian-general-muslim-youths-determined-to-avenge-death-of-soleimani/

    More recently, following the publication of a cover image ridiculing Ayatollah Khamenei by French magazine Charlie Hebdo, IRGC Commander-in-Chief Hossein Salami warned that “Muslims will take revenge sooner or later” and that the editors would face the same fate as Salman Rushdie.29 https://iranwire.com/en/khameneicom/112595-hacked-off-islamic-republics-angry-retaliation-for-charlie-hebdos-sacrilegious-cartoons/

    The IRGC’s Propaganda Activities on UK Soil

    The rise in IRGC-related propaganda activities on UK soil constitutes a direct terror threat to the UK’s national security.

    Figure 2 – An IRGC flag is raised in London during an annual Quds Day rally in 2021

    Figure 2

    Source: IRGC-affiliated news outlet

    In January 2020, the Islamic Centre of England (ICE) – a UK charity that operates as the formal office of Khamenei and is run by the official representative of Iran’s supreme leader – held a candlelit vigil at its London premises in response to the death of Soleimani, a designated UK terrorist. During the event, it was reported that the speaker praised Soleimani as a “dedicated soldier of Islam” and for his “martyrdom”. As a result, the charity has received an official warning30 https://www.gov.uk/government/news/charity-regulator-issues-official-warning-to-islamic-centre-of-england-ltd by the Charity Commission for England and Wales.31 https://www.thejc.com/news/uk/charity-that-held-vigil-for-terrorist-given-official-warning-1.500896

    In addition, at least six mosques across the UK organised events honouring Soleimani in January 2020, with reports revealing that British children in some religious schools were given special classes in praise of the UK-proscribed terrorist for being a “martyr.”32 https://www.thejc.com/news/news/schoolchildren-at-british-mosques-given-lessons-in-praise-of-iranian-terror-martyr-4uZBOGaj8lRYr7iOFa022s

    In July 2022, an IRGC-affiliated music-video production titled “Salute Commander” was recorded on UK soil, including on the premises of the School of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Kilburn and ICE.33 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=viDdqumyN6Y&t=219s34https://bit.ly/3XvPNwn Featuring a song that has been translated into multiple languages, the music video shows children declaring their preparedness to join the so-called 313 special fighters of the Twelfth Imam and join the apocalyptic wars that will follow the Twelfth Imam’s return to earth – and in so doing, expressing a desire to become “martyrs”. As the verse states: “Do not see me as too young. From the 313, you’ll see I’ll answer the call.”35 https://www.thejc.com/news/news/children-chant-massacre-jews-song-at-north-london-school-3PhICML3MzCLam4xjXz3vr

    Figure 3 – An IRGC video, recorded on UK soil, features children singing about their preparedness to participate in wars against “non-believers”

    Picture of kids with blurred out faces saluting

    Source: YouTube

    Proscription would enable the UK government to increase safeguarding measures to prevent and protect the country against homegrown IRGC and Shia Islamist extremism and radicalisation. As acknowledged by the US Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), this is an increasing possibility in the West.36 https://ctc.usma.edu/fighters-without-borders-forecasting-new-trends-iran-threat-network-foreign-operations-tradecraft/

    Figure 4 – In the same video, children are shown pledging allegiance to Iran’s supreme leader

    Video static of schoolkids saluting

    Source: YouTube

    The UK’s Prevent programme, which seeks to tackle the ideological challenge of terrorism and homegrown radicalisation, has almost exclusively focused on Salafi-jihadist ideology. Prevent should broaden its remit to the full spectrum of Islamist extremism, including Shia-Islamist extremism. This is particularly important given the presence of Iranian-state-run institutions on UK soil, such as a college affiliated to Al-Mustafa International University (already sanctioned by the US), which have played an instrumental role in the recruitment and radicalisation of militants and operatives for the IRGC’s Quds Force around the world.37 https://institute.global/policy/uk-integrated-review-global-britain-will-challenge-threat-irans-regime-beyond-nuclear-deal; https://www.thejc.com/news/news/minutes-from-a-shul-the-college-that-is-iran's-hidden-uk-'foothold'-6QPD8zp83EpeJcxCbeabCZ; https://home.treasury.gov/news/press-releases/sm1205

    The fact that an IRGC-affiliated video that has been created to indoctrinate children was recorded on UK soil is particularly alarming because it indicates the Guard has established a homegrown support base. Given there has been an increase in IRGC terror-related activity on Western soil since 2015, the presence of a UK base is of great concern. Homegrown radicalisation of British citizens for terror-related activity is a distinct possibility. In addition, intelligence38 https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/07/08/iran-irgc-khamenei-hossein-taeb-removal-power/ reveals that the IRGC’s Intelligence Organisation has ordered the targeting of Israeli and Jewish citizens living abroad, such as in Turkey where Israeli citizens and the deputy ambassador and his family were targeted. This represents a direct terror threat to British Jews and Israeli citizens living in the UK and further afield.

    Proscribing the IRGC as a terrorist organisation in its entirety would provide a clear mandate to the UK government, the Charity Commission, civil-society groups and technology companies to impose an outright ban on activities and content linked to or associated with the Guard on home soil.

    The IRGC and Hizbullah

    The IRGC and Hizbullah

    Under the Terrorism Act 2000, the UK government may proscribe an organisation if it: commits or participates in acts of terrorism; prepares for terrorism; promotes or encourages terrorism (including the unlawful glorification of terrorism); or is otherwise concerned in terrorism.” The IRGC fits all of the above.

    In 2019, the UK government proscribed Hizbullah as a terrorist organisation with the objective of restricting its ability to raise illicit funds and spread its extremist propaganda. It did so on the grounds that Hizbullah “is committed to armed resistance to the state of Israel and aims to seize all Palestinian territories and Jerusalem from Israel. It supports terrorism in Iraq and the Palestinian territories”.39 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/proscribed-terror-groups-or-organisations--2/proscribed-terrorist-groups-or-organisations-accessible-version

    The IRGC – which created Hizbullah and continues to arm, train and fund the group – is equally committed to armed resistance against Israel while supporting terrorism in Iraq and the Palestinian territories. The IRGC has an official policy of eradicating Israel – referring to the state as a “cancerous tumour” – and is committed to “armed resistance” in order to seize all Palestinian territories and Jerusalem from Israel.40 https://institute.global/policy/view-tehran-irans-militia-doctrine

    The reason Hizbullah has these ideological objectives is because it has accepted as its own the ideology of the IRGC and the Islamic Republic. In fact, Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbullah’s leader, has explicitly underlined this himself. The IRGC created Hizbullah in the early 1980s, with the Guard’s commanders writing Hizbullah’s charter and even designing the same emblem.41 https://www.rusi.org/explore-our-research/publications/commentary/militarisation-irans-presidency-irgc-and-2021-elections Both flags show a clenched fist holding up an AK-47 rifle to signify their organisations’ respective commitments to so-called armed resistance.

    Figure 5 – The similarities between the IRGC (left) and Hizbullah (right) flags are undeniable

    Flags

    Source: IRGC/Hizbullah

    Above the AK-47 rifle, there is a verse from the Quran: “Prepare against them [non-believers] whatever arms and cavalry you can muster” (al-Anfal 8:60). This verse is used by Islamist-extremist groups to justify militancy and acts of terror. It is also the most cited by proscribed Salafi-jihadi groups – such as ISIS and al-Qaeda – who repeat it to provide religious legitimacy to their acts of terrorism.42 https://institute.global/sites/default/files/inline-files/TBI_Struggle-over-Scripture_0.pdf

    Today, the IRGC remains Hizbullah’s biggest supporter ideologically, militarily and financially as well as in terms of training. Efforts to restrict Hizbullah’s activity will be undermined for as long as the IRGC – its primary supporter – is able to continue providing it with ideological, financial and weapons support.

    Further Reading

    Links to more in-depth reports on the IRGC and the regime in Iran are provided here:

    About the Author

    Kasra Aarabi is the Iran programme lead at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, where he specialises in Iran and Shia Islamist extremism. He is also a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute. His research includes Iran’s military and security forces, with a focus on the IRGC and the Basij, Iran and Shia militias across the Middle East, Iran’s domestic politics, the Islamic Republic’s political elite and Iran’s state-societal relations, Iran-UK affairs and Europe-US-Iran ties. Aarabi is a native Persian (Farsi) speaker and holds an MA (Hons) in international relations and a BA in international politics, both from King’s College London. He is also undertaking a PhD at the University of St Andrews, where his research focuses on Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.

    Lead Image: Getty Images

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