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March 20, 2024

Iran targeted human rights sanctions series: Understanding ‘terrorist organization’ designations in relation to the IRGC

By Celeste Kmiotek and Lisandra Novo

Targeted human rights sanctions are, in short, a tool governments use to freeze the assets of and deny visas to those complicit in human rights violations. While they are generally intended to prompt offenders to change their behavior, they have additional effects. For example, preventing perpetrators from obtaining the tools needed to continue abuses and showing support for victims. However, the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Litigation Project (SLP) has heard from multiple sources that many people in affected communities—including the Iranian community—do not have sufficient information, especially in their native language, about these measures and what they mean.

Based on this feedback, this blog series was started to highlight important information about targeted human rights sanctions as they relate to the Islamic Republic of Iran; major updates on Iranian perpetrators who have been sanctioned for human rights abuses and why; and any other information that may be relevant to affected communities. Input is welcomed from readers, particularly in Iranian civil society, for questions and topics that should be addressed.

This page will be subsequently updated with a Persian translation of the post. 

Since Mahsa Jina Amini’s death in 2022 and the resulting protests, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has been one of the main perpetrators of human rights violations in Iran. The IRGC is a security force of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) headed by the commander-in-chief of the Iranian Armed Forces, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It has been responsible for countless violations across a variety of contexts and has significant influence over domestic matters in Iran. In addition to the various sanctions that have been issued against the IRGC for human rights violations, there have been repeated calls for governments across the world to list it as a terrorist organization. This post looks at how terrorist organization listings are decided, the consequences, and how these are related to targeted human rights sanctions.

Which countries have listed the IRGC as a terrorist organization?

Of the main jurisdictions featured in this series—Australia, Canada, the European Union (EU), the United Kingdom (UK), and the United States (US)—only the US has listed the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization (April 15, 2019). The Canadian government recently announced it is “looking at ways to ‘responsibly’ designate” the IRGC but has so far only listed a subsidiary of the IRGC, the Quds Force (December 17, 2012). Other countries that have listed the IRGC as a terrorist organization include Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

What does a ‘terrorist organization’ listing mean and how does it compare to sanctions?

While each country has its definition, usually, this listing means the designated group is seen as being involved in terrorism in some way. A terrorist organization listing is similar to a targeted sanctions designation but involves different legal bases, processes, and consequences. As with targeted sanctions, these differ depending on the country making the listing and are detailed below for the main jurisdictions. Similarly, each of the main jurisdictions also has protections in place to uphold due process and other rights of the listed organizations and their members. In particular, each jurisdiction has policies mandating periodic reviews of listings and/or other de-listing or revocation processes. Unlike targeted sanctions, a terrorist organization listing opens the door for prosecutors to bring certain criminal charges for terrorism-related offenses against the organization’s members and associates, such as for the crime of membership in a terrorist organization.

What is the process for adding an organization?

As with targeted sanctions, the process for terrorist organization designations for all the main jurisdictions is mainly a discretionary decision by senior government officials. However, different criteria and different government agencies and officials are involved.

Australia: The minister for home affairs evaluates whether the criteria required in the Criminal Code Act 1995, Division 102 have been met and arranges a briefing for the leader of the opposition. The minister also seeks the agreement of the state/territory first ministers and advises the prime minister on the matter. Once this is complete, the governor-general “may make regulations to list” the organization.

Canada: Under the Anti-terrorism Act, once it has been established that there are “reasonable grounds to believe” that an entity was sufficiently involved in the terrorist activity, reports are submitted to the minister for public safety, who, if they are satisfied the “reasonable grounds” standard is met, may recommend that the governor in council place the entity on the list.


European Union: The EU has the most complex process as a multilateral organization. For the EU, there must first be a “decision” by a “competent authority” concerning “a terrorist attack, an attempt to perpetrate, participate in or facilitate such an act based on serious and credible evidence or clues.” A “competent authority” could be “a judicial authority, or, where judicial authorities have no competence… an equivalent competent authority in that area.” Those identified by the United Nations Security Council “as being related to terrorism and against whom it has ordered sanctions” may also be included.

According to the case law of the Court of Justice of the EU, administrative authorities could also be considered competent authorities so long as their decisions are subject to judicial review. This indicates that a sanctions designation by certain countries could be sufficient if adequate due process considerations are guaranteed.

Once a competent authority has made a decision, a member state of the EU or the high representative for foreign affairs and security policy (HR) can submit a proposal to be reviewed by the Working Party on restrictive measures to combat terrorism (COMET). After reviews and consultations, COMET then recommends the listing, or not, to the EU Council for adoption.

United Kingdom: The organization must first meet the proscription requirements in the Terrorism Act 2000. Then, the home secretary uses their discretion to determine if proscription would be “proportionate,” looking at factors including the “nature and scale of an organisation’s activities”; “the specific threat that it poses to the UK”; “the specific threat that it poses to British nationals overseas”; “the extent of the organisation’s presence in the UK”; and “the need to support other members of the international community in the global fight against terrorism.” If the secretary believes the requirements are met and it would be proportional, they may add the organizations to the list of Proscribed Terrorist Groups or Organisations.

United States: Under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) § 219, the US Department of State can designate groups as foreign terrorist organizations (FTO). This is based on three criteria: the group must be a foreign organization, must engage in “terrorist activity,” and that activity must threaten either the security of US nationals or US national security. To recommend a designation, the Department of State’s Bureau of Counterterrorism prepares an “administrative record” of information about a proposed foreign terrorist organization. The secretary of state consults with the attorney general and the treasury secretary in deciding whether to make a designation. The secretary of state, and barring any action to block the designation over a seven-day waiting period, the designation takes effect.

In a similar process under Executive Order 13224, both the State and Treasury departments, in consultation with the Department of Justice, can list, as a targeted sanction, “specially designated global terrorists” (SDGT). These designations cover a wider range of individuals and entities than are allowed under the foreign terrorist organization listing. Still, its effects are limited to those of targeted sanctions (in this case, freezing assets and prohibiting transactions). Unlike a designation as an FTO under the Immigration and Nationality Act, a designation as an SDGT under Executive Order 13224 cannot, for example, give rise to certain civil and criminal offenses related to terrorism. However, an SDGT designation may have other benefits compared to an FTO designation, such as better allowing the US government to engage in diplomacy with the organization.

What are the consequences of being designated as a terrorist organization, and why should the IRGC be listed?

In addition to the symbolic gesture, one of the main consequences of a “terrorist organization” listing is the availability of terrorism-related prosecutions both against members of the organization and against those supporting it. The specific crimes that involve terrorist organizations vary by jurisdiction but often include membership and supplying resources.

This means that, for example, an IRGC official arrested in an EU country could be prosecuted not just for atrocities committed in Iran—for example, torture and crimes against humanity—but also for membership in a terrorist organization. While there are policy reasons why it is important for prosecutors to try to bring atrocity-related charges, it can be difficult to establish the link between high-level officials and the relevant offenses and so terrorism-related charges may be easier to prove.

Further, some jurisdictions also allow for cumulative charges, which means they can bring different charges for the same underlying act. For example, if someone provided weapons used in an attack by the IRGC, they could be charged both with indirect liability—such as aiding and abetting—for atrocity crimes and could be simultaneously charged with “supporting” a terrorist organization. This increases the likelihood of conviction on at least one charge and, if both result in convictions, of a longer overall sentence. Additionally, for some countries—such as the US—there may be “less inhibition on exercising universal jurisdiction” over those supporting terrorist organizations as opposed to those committing other crimes.

Finally, the US requires financial institutions to “retain possession of or control over” the funds of a foreign terrorist organization or its “agent” and report the funds to the US government. It also prohibits entry to “[r]epresentatives and members” of the organization “if they are aliens.” In the EU, “EU external terrorist” organizations have their funds and financial assets frozen, and funds, financial assets, and economic resources cannot be made available to them directly or indirectly. In Canada, a listed entity’s property “can be the subject of seizure/restraint and/or forfeiture.” Neither the UK nor Australia implements asset freezes for domestic terrorist organization listings.

What are the arguments against listing the IRGC?

First, as with sanctions—targeted and otherwise—an IRGC listing risks imposing a burden on civilians through over-compliance and negative impacts on the Iranian economy without guaranteeing constraints on the IRGC’s behavior or significant effects on the “political elite.”

In addition, even with the domestic pressure to list the IRGC as a terrorist organization, leaders have voiced hesitation in taking that step. The UK, for instance, appeared willing to list the IRGC in early 2023 but has since indicated that it will instead expand the criteria for targeted sanctions to include violations that occurred inside the UK. It was reported that the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office worried that a terrorist designation would trigger the expulsion of the UK ambassador to Iran and that it knew that the EU was unlikely to make a parallel terrorist designation. It was also reported in February 2023 that US diplomats were urging the UK not to designate the IRGC as a terrorist organization, though the spokesperson for the US Department of State responded that such an approach by the US didn’t “ring true” to him and by October 2023 there were reports indicating the Joe Biden administration was urging the UK to make the designation.

Notably, the IRGC is distinct from most other listed terrorist organizations as it is a state military organization and is “constitutionally mandated.” In the United States, for example, no other country has military components which have been designated as FTOs.

Finally, Iran has compulsory military service, and conscripts were historically randomly assigned to branches—including the IRGC—which has impacted immigration for those who were conscripted decades ago. However, since 2010, about 80 percent of the IRGC’s conscripts actively choose to join the IRGC. There are further reports that conscripts can use bribes, “privileges,” and connections to avoid combat and that the IRGC, in particular, is “very corrupt.” Since 2010, over 70 percent of IRGC conscripts were already members of the Basij Resistance Force—a “volunteer paramilitary organization operating under” the IRGC—because the IRGC recognizes Basij training (reducing the total length of military service) and because Basij members are viewed as “more loyal” to the regime. Of the remaining 30 percent, some have postgraduate degrees with a “personal choice” of desk jobs due to their specialization. Finally, a “maximum 20 percent” are distributed to the IRGC “in some unprivileged and poor areas, due to the number of Basij members being insufficient.” Determining who falls into this category could be achieved through “filtering and determining [with] a special degree of scrutiny[…] on a case-by-case basis.” 

Celeste Kmiotek is a staff lawyer for the Strategic Litigation Project at the Atlantic Council.

Lisandra Novo is a staff lawyer for the Strategic Litigation Project at the Atlantic Council.

Further reading

Image: A member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) waits to take part in a rally in the holy city of Qom, 145 km (90 miles) south of Tehran, on May 3, 2016.(Photo by Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto)