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Cross Party Alliance Claims Whitehall Is Resisting Proscribing IRGC As A Terrorist Group

(Alamy)

6 min read

A number of MPs from across the House of Commons have claimed there is institutional resistance from Whitehall to proscribe the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist group, a year after reports suggested a move could be considered.

Iran has historically held close ties with Palestinian territories. Iran has provided Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups an estimated $100million every year, according to US Government analysis. The IRGC emerged in 1979 after the Iranian Revolution as an opposition to Iran's military. There has been concern it has morphed into an economic and political power, and has strong ties with Iran's Supreme leader.

In October Iran’s Supreme leader Ali Khamenei denied any involvement in the 7 October terrorist attacks on Israel, in which Hamas killed approximately 1,200 people and more than 240 were taken hostage. According to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry, 25,105 Palestinians have since been killed in ongoing retaliatory strikes by Israel.

In January 2023, the Telegraph reported that the UK Government was deliberating whether to proscribe the IRGC as a terrorist organisation with security minister Tom Tugendhat and then home secretary Suella Braverman reportedly in favour. A year later, with the group still not proscribed, former immigration minister Robert Jenrick wrote in the Sunday Telegraph that he believed the UK had been “painfully slow” to act, and should take the threat of the “fanatical” Iranian regime more seriously.

A senior Conservative MP told PoliticsHome they believed the delay was a result of a belief in Whitehall and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) that the UK could use its influence over the organisation to suit Britain's and the West's global interests. 

“The [FCDO] has got this obsession that they can act as an intermediary [between the West and Iran]. The last foreign secretary didn’t challenge anything, and loved the trips around the world," they said. 

“They're still faffing around on this idea somehow that the UK has some influence in this area, amongst people like the Iranians. It should be renamed the complacency department, and [Foreign Secretary David Cameron] should be renamed the complacency minister.”

Another Conservative MP said they also believed the UK was perceived as a back-channel to Iran by its Western allies. 

“I’ve heard that [at] least one Five Eyes nation maintains a link to the Iranian regime,” they said, referring to the Anglosphere Five Eyes intelligence network of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and US. “Personally I think that’s a fairly weak argument.”

The Government recently proscribed pro-Palestinian group Hizb ut-Tahrir. The group was sanctioned after it described Hamas as heroes in the wake of the terrorist attacks on 7 October in Israel. Supporting the group is now a criminal offence and can be issued with a prison sentence of up to 14 years. Other groups which have been proscribed in the UK include extreme Islamist terror groups such as Isis and al-Qaeda.

A former cabinet minister told PoliticsHome they believed the FCDO was wary of proscribing the IRGC specifically – as opposed to other terror groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir – to keep the British embassy in Tehran. However, they said this reason alone was not strong enough to prevent the Government from taking action and sanctioning the IRGC.

“Having an embassy in a country doesn't necessarily improve relations very much,” they said. “I think since the IRGC is so much of a conduit for Iranian activity, I will say we should shut it down in terms of open access to Britain.”

Another former cabinet minister told PoliticsHome he thought there was institutional resistance from officials in Whitehall. However, they believed the civil service must know that there would be serious consequences for the UK's security if it was proscribed. 

“Take Hizb ut-Tahrir, for example. The idea of proscribing them was around when Blair was prime minister in the 00s. It takes a long time [to sanction groups]. Whitehall must know if we proscribe the IRGC there will be consequences for Britain,” they added.

Labour MPs and activists have criticised Whitehall for not proscribing the IRGC as a terrorist group. Many are concerned that the perceived resistance from Whitehall to proscribe the IRGC could have an effect on Labour policy if they win the election next year. 

Shadow foreign secretary David Lammy has told the House of Commons that Labour would proscribe the IRGC as a terrorist organisation if elected at the next general election.

John Spellar, Labour MP for Warley, vice-chair of Labour Friends of Israel, who sits on the Defence Committee, told PoliticsHome while he believed there had been institutional resistance in the civil service against the IRGC. He added that, despite the pushback, “in the end” ministers have to make decisions on such matters.

“They are an international terrorist organisation [the IRGC]. They're also significantly involved in organised crime,” he said. “However, it would be a mistake to see it through the prism of the current conflict. That’s a manifestation of it, but it’s much bigger than that."

Spellar claimed the IRGC also supported Hamas, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen. According to the US Government, Iran also continues to supply weapons to Palestine Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command.

A senior Labour MP also told PoliticsHome they believed there was pushback from civil servants in the FCDO on proscribing the IRGC. They added that they thought there was a dividing line between the Home Office who wanted to proscribe the group and the FCDO who were more cautious.

PoliticsHome understands the Sanctions Unit which helps proscribe groups has ballooned in size and occupies similar floor space to the FCDO press office.

Several Whitehall sources dismissed accusations made by Conservative and Labour MPs as unfair, as proscribing an organisation or group was a decision taken by a Government minister.

One Whitehall source told PoliticsHome when it comes to matters of delicate international diplomacy and what goes on behind the scenes, MPs sometimes aren’t aware of exactly what is going on and the steps being taken by officials. They added that if a minister explicitly asked for a group to be proscribed, then it would happen.

Another Whitehall said the UK had a terrible “relationship” with Iran – and in-turn disagreed that the UK could be considered as a back-channel for talks. “We have a skeleton embassy out there. Switzerland used to be seen as a back-channel but the UK was not,” they added.

A Government spokesperson said the UK government, law enforcement and international partners will continue to “work together to identify, deter and respond to threats from Iran.”

“We will continue to take strong action against Iran while they threaten people in the UK and around the world. The UK has sanctioned more than 350 Iranian individuals and entities, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in its entirety.”

The Government maintains a list of sanctions on the IRGC. On 14 December a new sanctions regime on Iran was implemented, and gave the UK powers to disrupt Iran and the IRGC.

The sanctions included restriction of the country's drone programme and shipping. The Government also put in place asset freezes on the IRGC Palestine Branch and named seven individuals who were subject to asset freezes and travel bans.  

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