With Hezbollah still not officially recognised as terrorists by the EU, a British Israel advocacy group has launched a drive to have Iran’s Revolutionary Guard added to the list. But is such a campaign justified, asks Stephen ORYSZCZUK.
What is terrorism? It seems a simple enough question. But try defining it to everyone’s satisfaction and you’ll find it’s harder than you think.
That’s what the international community found, and despite ‘terrorism’ seeming ever-present, there is still no legally-binding criminal law definition.
Such vagaries have not stopped the British Jewish community’s concerted efforts to have the EU certify Hezbollah as terrorist A-listers. But with that campaign still in full-swing – and at a sensitive stage – the Zionist Federation has chosen to launch another project: to have the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRG) designated as terrorists as well.
To some, the IRG’s inclusion on the list would complete the official damnation of an unholy trinity.
Hamas – elected rulers of Gaza and openly hostile to Israel – is already listed. Hezbollah – again with a military wing and also openly hostile – is well on its way to being listed too. That leaves Iran. And the state’s overseas reach undoubtedly comes from branches of the IRG.
“The IRG has its hands in many different terrorist activities around the world,” says ZF chairman Paul Charney. “Had it purely worked within Iran we wouldn’t be looking to proscribe it as a terrorist organisation. But since it has been shown to be influential internationally and to be a fundamental part of terrorist activities around the world, we feel that by proscribing it we would be able to cut off its funds from the EU and limit its activities around Europe and its ability to move freely around Europe.”
The British Government dismisses Charney’s argument. They say that the purported benefits of listing the IRG as a terrorist organisation (i.e. to limit funds and travel) are already covered under sanctions.
A spokesman for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office explains: “The IRGC Quds Force is designated in the UN and EU under proliferation sanctions, and in the EU under EU-Syria sanctions, so it is already subject to global asset freezes and travel bans.”
He adds that five individuals, including the IRGC–QF commander Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, have already been proscribed in the UK and the EU for their involvement in terrorist activities.
But this, explains Charney, is not enough. “It’s entirely different dealing with Iran as a country and dealing with the IRG as an organisation,” he says. “By dealing with Iran and its nuclear programme you’re dealing with the political element of Iran, with different funding sources and bank accounts than those the IRG has access to around the world. Sanctioning Iran for nuclear activities would not prevent the IRG from carrying out its terrorist activities.”
So the ZF is clear that the IRG is directly involved in perpetrating terrorist activity, but Charney admits that it is difficult to quantify this statement. To prove it, you would have to find bank accounts not subject to sanctions but accessed by the IRG which were then used to fund terrorist activities – difficult indeed.
And here the problems start.
“It’s very difficult to trace their involvement in terrorist activity,” says Dr Sara Bazoobandi, an Iranian lecturer of international political economy at Regent’s College. “We can’t prove it, and you cannot start a campaign without having sufficient evidence.”
The question of proof and certainty aside, there are other issues with the ZF campaign, among them the fact that the IRG is very much part of a recognised state’s military apparatus. Since states have long operated covertly and aggressively against hostile interests outside their own borders, experts say the ZF is treading a thin line.
St Andrews University Prof. Ali Ansari, founding Director of the Institute for Iranian Studies, says: “I’m not sure how you would apply such a term [as terrorist] to the IRGC but then avoid any similar such judgment on the activities of special forces elsewhere,” he says. It conjures uncomfortable images of campaigns to list the SAS or elite American and Israeli units on the same grounds as the ZF is currently quoting.
There is also the problem of the smoking gun, or lack of, and Ansari points out that – in terms of terrorist activity – there is a difference between being a state sponsor of terrorism (which Iran is already listed as) and a terrorist organisation.
“They are undoubtedly involved in what we may euphemistically call low-intensity warfare but I doubt very much they are directly involved in terrorist actions,” he says. “Anything against civilians would normally be farmed out to other organisations.”
Charney disagrees. “The objective of terrorism is to terrorise, to change the mindsets of people and to spread extremism around the world,” he says. “This sits together with what the IRG is doing: to get support against Israel by targeting civilians around the world, so they live in fear. The psychology of terrorism sits very well with the ideology of the IRG.”
Charney lists countries such as Bulgaria, Argentina and Kenya as examples of where Iranian involvement has long been suspected, but again, evidence of the IRG’s direct engagement in terrorist activities is thin on the ground.
The ZF team point to a wealth of research, with several newspaper articles showing Iranian involvement in Syria and support for Hezbollah. But this is hardly news, and Charney admits that ZF claims are based on “secondary research and news reports.” Understandable, yes. Irrefutable, no.
Another potential problem comes in the form of numbers. The IRG has around 125,000 members, of whom many are poor, rural conscripts. The Basij militia – an IRG subsidiary – totals about 90,000. If you add that the supporters and associates and you’ve got a quarter of a million new ‘terrorists’ overnight. At best that figure would scare anyone who may want to back the campaign. At worst it would invite ridicule.
The campaign, for some, is more symbolic. “I wonder if the ZF has nothing better to do, if this is not some sort of publicity stunt,” asks Yossi Mekelberg, Associate Fellow in the Middle East programme at Chatham House. “Are they going to achieve anything with it? Probably not.”
Similarly dismissive is Prof Ansari, who says: “A fixation with the IRGC misses the point. I don’t see any merit in labelling an entire armed force as a terrorist group. I think the Americans tried this previously and found it unworkable. I don’t think there is much appetite for this in Europe and I suspect the Americans would shy away from doing it again.”
Bazoobandi is reticent because there are so many problems with defining ‘terrorism’ in this context. “Does it mean anything in opposition to Israel?” she asks. “Is it all sorts of Islamic radicalisation and fundamentalism? If so, there is an argument for the Muslim Brotherhood to be labelled a terrorist organisation too, and any number of others across the region.”
The campaign also risks over-simplifying the organisation. “They have their hands in almost every single pie,” Bazoobandi says. “They control the trade, they’re into gold, foreign currency trading, promoting Islamic interests overseas, and of course they defend Iran’s borders. So it is a very unique spirit that they have. But you can’t just label it a terrorist organisation and put it in a box. It’s a lot more complicated than that.”
Mekelberg agrees that the IRG is a problem, but he too does not agree that proscribing them is the solution.
“They’re not candidates for sainthood,” he says. “But Iran is a complex country, as we saw in the elections. To alienate more elements of it and set the Jewish community against it, I’m not sure it’s the wisest policy right now. What we need is dialogue with the new government, to criticise specific policies, specific activities.”
The ZF can count on support from the Jewish community. The Jewish Leadership Council [JLC], whose CEO Jeremy Newmark says “of course” the IRG should be proscribed, adds: “It is an important campaign that follows hot on the heels of the successful community-wide effort to get our Government to take a lead on EU-wide proscription of Hizbollah.”
Luke Akehurst of ‘We Believe,’ a grassroots initiative and subsidiary of BICOM, says he was asked by the ZF to promote their campaign, which he agreed to do, but was unable to define “terrorism” and acknowledged that he had not looked into it. “We don’t second-guess the issues,” he says. “We support it, as long as it looks reasonable. They tell me there’s evidence that it’s linked to terrorism… I didn’t ask if they’d seen the evidence.”
He adds: “It’s obvious that something with that name [as the Revolutionary Guard] is not a benign organisation.”
Concern about a wider lack of understanding within the community was further exacerbated when, in response to a press enquiry, the Board of Deputies said: “We don’t seem to know enough to comment.”
So, is the ZF’s campaign the right thing to do?
That of course remains wide open to debate. But one thing is agreed: the IRG is a problem for Israel that is unlikely to go away, whatever they are officially called.