Issued by CEMO Center - Paris
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UK weighs designating Iran’s Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organisation

Tuesday 17/January/2023 - 04:37 PM
The Reference

Foreign secretary James Cleverly says Tehran will be ‘held to account’ after execution of Iranian-British man

UK foreign secretary James Cleverly on Monday warned the Iranian government it would be “held to account” for the execution of former senior regime official Alireza Akbari, an Iranian-British dual national, describing his death as a “cowardly and shameful act”.

His warning comes as the UK conducts a review to decide whether to designate Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, the most powerful wing of its military, a terrorist organisation in a sign of Britain’s hardening stance towards the Islamic republic.

The review was launched before Akbari was hanged on charges of spying for MI6, Britain’s security service, but it may strengthen the case of Iran hawks in the UK government.

Cleverly told MPs that they “should be in no doubt that we are witnessing the vengeful actions of a weakened and isolated regime obsessed with suppressing its own people, debilitated by its own fear of losing power and wrecking its international reputation”.

A British official said the review was initiated by the Home Office, adding that no final decision had been taken as there was debate within the government over how to proceed.

It is highly unusual for a government to designate another state’s military a terrorist organisation and the UK will have to weigh the risks and rewards of any such action.

There is nervousness in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office about proscribing the Revolutionary Guards because of the risk of retaliation by Tehran against UK-Iranian dual nationals in the country, according to officials briefed on the internal discussions. FCDO insiders said it was unlikely any decision was imminent.

A proscription would further escalate tensions between London and Tehran and risked triggering retaliatory measures from the Islamic republic, analysts said. It would also complicate any future hopes of reviving diplomatic efforts to save the moribund 2015 nuclear accord that Iran signed with world powers. As one of three European signatories to the deal, Britain has been central to the diplomacy.

But the UK has also become increasingly concerned by Iranian threats to individuals, including journalists, in Britain. In November, Ken McCallum, director-general of MI5, Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, warned that Iran projects a “threat to the UK directly, through its aggressive intelligence services”.

“At its sharpest this includes ambitions to kidnap or even kill British or UK-based individuals perceived as enemies of the regime,” he said.

The same month, Iran International, a London-based satellite TV network considered by many Iranians to be an opposition channel, said some of its journalists had received credible threats to their lives from the Islamic republic.

Relations between Britain and Iran have been strained for months as the UK has joined other western states in condemning Iran’s crackdown on nationwide protests that erupted in September after the death of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, in police custody, as well as Tehran’s decision to sell armed drones to Russia for deployment in the war with Ukraine.

The 120,000-strong Revolutionary Guards Corps was established after the 1979 Islamic revolution in parallel to the conventional army to protect the republic from domestic and foreign threats.

Former US president Donald Trump designated the guards a terrorist organisation in April 2019, a year after he unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear accord Tehran signed with world powers.

The designation stoked tensions across the Middle East. In the months following the decision, the US blamed Iran for sabotage attacks on tankers in the Gulf and for a sophisticated missile and drone assault on Saudi Arabia later that year that temporarily knocked out half the kingdom’s oil output.

At the time, the UK and other European powers opposed Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, fearing it would lead to greater instability in the region and derail attempts to save the nuclear accord.

But diplomatic efforts to revive the nuclear deal have been stalled for months, as the UK and other western powers strongly criticised Iran’s crackdown on protesters.

Sanam Vakil, an Iran expert at Chatham House, said because the guards were a “critical economic and security player with a constitutional mandate to protect the regime’s internal and external security interests, a UK proscription would likely result in a break of diplomatic ties”.

“This would result in escalation of tensions to levels not seen since 2011, which was the last time ties were cut,” she added.“Depending on whether other countries follow suit, we should expect Tehran to employ a pattern of escalation in the Gulf region similar to what was rolled out in 2019.”