Following Hamas’s invasion of several regions of Israel, its spokesman, Ghazi Hamad, confirmed to the BBC that his terrorist organisation’s attack had been encouraged and facilitated by Iran and its proxies.
In that context, it is worth considering the threat posed to the UK by Iran and Russia, and the different responses to both.
They are overtly cooperating to support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and circumvent heavy global sanctions, bound together by economic necessity and the pathological need to upend the Western-led world order.
Over time, threats from irregular quasi-state paramilitary organisations such as Russia’s Wagner Group and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have come to match — or in some cases even surpass — the threats from each nation’s official regular forces.
A member of private mercenary group Wagner pays tribute to its slain leader Yevgeny Prigozhin (Photo: Getty Images)
Both countries are able to project power and to be involved in critical conflicts around the world without the overt visibility or accountability that comes with using state military forces.
Wagner is correctly condemned for perpetrating dozens of war crimes, including against unarmed civilians in Ukraine, but also further afield such as in Mali, where they have staged evidence of French atrocities by falsifying mass graves, and in the Central African Republic, where the UN documented more than 500 incidents of killings, torture and sexual violence.
The UK government last month proscribed the Wagner Group, recognising its involvement in terrorism and criminal operations.
Security minister Tom Tugendhat was absolutely right when he condemned the “murderous organisation”, and told of how its proscription would send “a clear message that the UK will not tolerate Russia’s proxies and their barbaric actions in Ukraine, and condemns Wagner’s campaign of corruption and bloodshed on the African continent, which has been repeatedly linked to human rights violations”.
Despite its similar, if not more severe, threat profile, the IRGC continues to evade the UK’s proscription list. If the Wagner Group is recognised as a terrorist group, why not the IRGC?
The IRGC meets and exceeds all criteria under existing terrorist proscription legislation. The “mothership” of Iranian terror poses a clear threat to the UK and its nationals, with MI5 revealing that it foiled ten assassination attempts by the IRGC on British residents in 2022 alone, along with 15 foiled abduction and murder plots.
This is in addition to the well-publicised “bomb factory” discovered in London in 2015 and death threats to British-Iranian journalists.
They demonstrate a capacity to project terror that the Wagner Group simply cannot match. The IRGC has also been scoping Jewish and Israeli targets in the UK, as it has done across the US.
Just like Wagner, the IRGC has sought to use its military force to secure natural resources. African regimes have, in exchange for the training of their forces and the terrorising of their citizens, offered up their natural resources to fund Wagner’s activities, while the PMC have also been known to prioritise natural resources such as salt and gypsum mines in occupied Ukraine over military targets.
The IRGC, not to be outdone, have been scaling up their involvement in the oil and agriculture-rich al-Hasakah region of Syria, bringing in their weapons and military vehicles to protect it. Russia and the IRGC co-operated to smuggle hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of oil for the IRGC and Hezbollah, another Iranian proxy.
An Iranian woman looks at Taer-2 missile during a street exhibition by Iran's army and paramilitary Revolutionary Guard (Photo: Getty Images)
The IRGC already holds dominion over much of Iran’s natural capital and mineral wealth. Being the larger and more established force, the IRGC commits such piracy on a larger scale than Wagner could dream of.
It has been behind flagrant attacks on international commercial shipping, and regularly arrests foreigners, including UK nationals, for use in hostage-based diplomacy. Its antisemitism commits it to “armed resistance to the state of Israel and aims to seize all Palestinian territories and Jerusalem from Israel”, which alone was enough to get Hezbollah proscribed.
Of course, the IRGC backs terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, while its formal indoctrination process involves radicalising its members to adopt hardline Islamist-extremist ideology, and using them to destabilise and terrorise Western democracies as well as Israel.
Both groups use social media to propagate their ideologies internationally. Wagner live streams “pan-Africanist” pro-Russia rallies on social media and promotes disinformation campaigns in the West, targeting France in particular in an attempt to sow discontent from those communities.
The IRGC uses social media to promote their ideology and indoctrinate Shia youth globally, such as with the “Hello Commander!” pro-regime video filmed on UK soil, aimed at children.
Despite four decades of terror attacks, counterintelligence attacks, propaganda and radicalisation efforts, the UK has rejected calls to proscribe the IRGC as a terrorist group.
The IRGC’s longstanding support for Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other terrorists in Gaza is now manifesting itself to devastating effect. Proscription would go beyond individual financial sanctions and travel bans by making it a criminal offence to belong to or support the IRGC.
It would also mean that the IRGC’s financial assets could be deemed terrorist property, subject to seizure rather than just freezing.
Our powers to punish terrorist and confiscate funds would also apply to any foreign national visiting the UK, rather than just our own citizens, allowing us to charge terrorists with proscription offences that generally carry a prison sentence of up to ten years.
Together these powers would significantly weaken the IRGC’s financial capabilities and disrupt its operations.
Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (Photo: Getty Images)
Proscribing the IRGC as a terrorist organisation would provide a clear mandate to impose an outright ban on activities linked to or associated with the Guard on UK soil. This includes propaganda activities, such as the production and distribution of videos.
The proscription would empower the whole UK government, including the Charity Commission, civil-society groups, and technology companies to take decisive action. These mechanisms would deal a meaningful blow to the IRGC.
Officials are concerned that banning the IRGC would strain diplomatic relations and damage the “protection of UK interests”. They are, in other words, worried about repetition of high-profile hostage-taking by the IRGC.
However, this argument seems counterintuitive. If the goal is to protect UK interests, wouldn’t it be a stronger deterrent to weaken the IRGC’s capacity to take UK hostages in the first place?
Dialogue about “diplomatic channels” is also a red herring. Proscribing Hezbollah had no impact on our ability to deal with Lebanon. In any case, diplomacy cannot happen without a resolute stance from the West.
The contortions the UK government and some of our allies are going through on IRGC proscription is an intentional part of the Islamic Republic’s strategy.
They are watching as the West hesitates. Let’s better defend our own citizens and stand up for their millions of victims around the world, and get on with proscribing the IRGC.
Dr Azeem Ibrahim OBE is a Senior Director at the New Lines Institute and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College
Jemima Shelley is a Senior Analyst at the Tony Blair Institute specialising in Women’s Rights, Civil Society Movements and the Middle East