When the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was first established in the aftermath of Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, it was nowhere near as powerful as it is today.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the new Iranian leader, wanted to consolidate various militias into a single, regime-loyal force to counteract the power of the country’s official army and suppress internal dissent.

But Saddam Hussein’s unprovoked invasion of Iran the following year provided the catalyst that would turn the IRGC into a military in its own right.
What is the IRGC?

Not to be confused with Iran’s traditional armed forces, the IRGC is a parallel military body that protects Iran’s fundamentalist regime.

It fought off attempts to subjugate it to the regular army and instead expanded to include its own air, land, naval, and special forces who operated overseas.

In the 2000s, it was allowed to build its own intelligence agency to rival its official counterpart and granted government contracts that saw its economic and political power inside the country balloon.

Today, it is Iran’s primary armed force, with an estimated 125,000 regular personnel. It has a navy that may be bigger than the actual navy, fields a significant air force and runs Iran’s ballistic missile program.

It is one of the most powerful paramilitary organisations in the Middle East.

At home, its volunteer Basij militia, a religious outfit often used to suppress domestic protests, may number in the millions.

It runs news agencies and a vast network of businesses with interests in telecommunications, construction, oil and gas.

But it is the overseas operations wing, the Quds Force, that most bothers foreign governments.
What does the IRGC do abroad?

Described as a hybrid of the CIA and America’s special operations command, the Quds – or Jerusalem – Force is Israel’s main antagonist in the decades-long shadow war between the two countries.

It helped found Hezbollah in Lebanon in 1982 as an instrument to project Iranian power, was heavily involved in insurgencies in post-Saddam Iraq, and ran Iran’s intervention in the Syrian civil war.

Today, it coordinates a regional network of allies and proxies including Hezbollah, Shia militias in Iraq, the Houthis in Yemen and Hamas in Gaza.

Donald Trump ordered the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, the long-serving commander of the Quds, in a drone strike in Iraq in 2020.

Israel’s April 1 strike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus killed Gen Mohammad Reza Zahedi, the head of Quds Force’s Lebanon Corps and its key liaison with Hezbollah.

Who considers the IRGC to be a terrorist group?

The United States designated the IRGC as a terrorist group in 2019. A handful of other countries including Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, have also done so.

The European Parliament approved a resolution calling on the EU to designate the IRGC a terrorist group in 2023, but the resolution is not binding and most EU members – as well as key Western powers like Britain and Canada – have resisted calls from hawkish MPs, Iranian opposition groups and Israel to follow suit.

Instead, they have confined themselves to imposing sanctions on the organisation and some members.

Israel is now pushing for that to change.

“Alongside the military response to the firing of the missiles and the UAVs, I am leading a diplomatic offensive against Iran,” Israel Katz, the country’s foreign minister, said on X, formerly Twitter.

“This morning, I sent letters to 32 countries and spoke with dozens of foreign ministers and leading figures around the world, calling for sanctions to be imposed on the Iranian missile project and that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps be declared a terrorist organisation”.

Mr Katz didn’t specify to which governments he had written.

Why has the UK not proscribed the IRGC?

Although the US publicly called for its allies to proscribe the IRGC after the Oct 7 attacks, The Telegraph understands that American diplomats have privately asked the UK not to do so.

The US has not had diplomatic relations with Iran since 1980 and relies on other Western allies, including the UK, to act as a backchannel with Iran.

Some US officials have privately raised concerns that if the UK was to proscribe the group, Tehran would sever diplomatic ties with London and cut off a key diplomatic backchannel.

There are other reasons the UK resists calls to proscribe the IRGC.

One is that it is now such a vast organisation that it provides opportunities for subtler forms of engagement.

A blanket proscription would hinder efforts to foster division within its ranks.

In the long-run, fractures in the IRGC could be instrumental in ensuring the regime’s collapse or survival. Calling all of its 125,000 members terrorists, some argue, only gives potential dissenters reason to remain loyal.

Sir John Sawers, a former head of MI6, also cast doubt on the wisdom of proscribing the IRGC as a terrorist organisation.

“I don’t think it’s necessary. The counterterrorism legislation was designed to deal with terrorist groups, it’s not designed to deal with states.

“Now Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism, there’s no doubt about that, but a state poses a much more substantial threat than a terrorist organisation does. Parliament passed only last year a new intelligence and security act that gave MI5 the powers it needs to defend this country.

“If the head of MI5 came out and said I really need a proscription against the revolutionary guards, that would be one thing, but I’m not hearing that.

“I think it’s more of a rhetorical position of people in various parts of the political spectrum, looking for something to do, without really thinking about the substance of it.”

Source » telegraph