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European Support Grows for Sanctioning Iran’s Revolutionary Guards

The European Parliament on Thursday urged member states to list Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization, in a sign of growing support for new measures against Tehran as it arms Russia in Ukraine and suppresses protests at home.

The parliament’s resolution, which condemned Iran for its crackdown on protests, followed remarks from European Commission President

Ursula von der Leyen

on Tuesday saying she favored the move. Germany, the bloc’s most powerful country, has been pushing for the IRGC to be placed on the EU terrorism list for months.

Member states decide the bloc’s sanctions policy by unanimity but the parliament has influence over EU decisions.

Any move to sanction the IRGC would mark the clearest sign yet that the EU is turning away from the broad engagement with Tehran that marked European policy for years. In a sign of how rapidly the EU’s view of Iran has swung, European diplomats last spring prodded the U.S. to drop its Foreign Terrorist Organization listing of the IRGC as a way to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, a key Iranian demand.

Over the past six months, nuclear talks have ground to a halt and Iranian authorities have launched a bloody crackdown on protests that broke out in September. A surge in the number of European citizens detained by the Iranian government has further strained ties with Europe’s leading powers.

Iran’s backing for Russia’s war effort has all but silenced the voices of those in European capitals who have traditionally sought stronger ties with Tehran.

Iranian Foreign Minister

Hossein Amir-Abdollahian

warned against sanctioning the IRGC in a call Wednesday with EU foreign-policy chief

Josep Borrell,

saying Europe should “think about the negative consequences,” according to the Iranian Foreign Ministry.

“It is necessary to respect mutual security,” Mr. Amir-Abdollahian said.

The IRGC is a military organization tasked with protecting the Islamic revolution’s ideals. It has amassed vast economic power in Iran, while also being involved in Iran’s nuclear and ballistic-missile programs and stifling dissent at home, Western officials say. Its Quds Force, a specialized division, has arranged weapons deliveries and advised pro-Iranian militias in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian has warned against sanctioning the IRGC.


adem altan/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

The European Parliament’s resolution urged member states to add the IRGC and subsidiary forces, like the Basij militia, to the terrorism list. It also called for sanctions on Iranian Supreme Leader

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

EU officials have warned that listing the IRGC as a terrorist organization faces significant legal hurdles, which could force them to look at alternatives. Some capitals also remain wary of placing the group on the terrorism list, fearing it could spark the final unraveling of the Iranian nuclear deal and harm the chances of freeing European citizens detained by Tehran.

EU courts have demanded updated evidence for terrorism listings in recent years. In 2014, the EU’s General Court threatened to ax the bloc’s terrorism listing of Palestinian group Hamas, citing weak evidence of recent terrorist activities.

EU terrorism listings are almost always based on EU legal cases or prosecutions, but the bloc can cite a non-EU judgment if it is deemed legally sound.

Last week, Berlin, which is exploring IRGC links to attacks on Jewish targets in Germany, asked EU lawyers to advise whether a U.S. federal court ruling on IRGC involvement in the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia in 1996 could allow for a terrorism listing.

EU lawyers responded last Thursday by saying that because the attack took place many years ago, EU courts could decide that the groundings aren’t strong enough to list the IRGC now, according to people briefed on discussions. Some member states require an organization to be a current threat to their national security to list them.

One option would be for the EU to wait to see if domestic investigations turn up evidence of IRGC involvement, which even in the German case could take months, officials say. European officials also say that if the U.K. goes ahead as planned and lists the IRGC as a terrorist group—particularly with new evidence available of an IRGC threat—it could open the way to an EU listing.

But diplomats are considering alternatives. One would be to list the IRGC under human-rights sanctions. That would still leave open the possibility of a terrorism listing at a later stage if there is a new case with a suspected IRGC link. Legally, that would have the same effect in terms of deterring any business with the IRGC or people and entities linked to the group.

Self-destructing drones play a key role in Russia’s strategy to strike cities and civilian infrastructure in Ukraine. Clues in videos and photos indicate that unmanned aerial vehicles are provided by Iran, despite Moscow’s denials. Illustration: Adam Adada

Meanwhile, the bloc is set to sanction additional IRGC officials when foreign ministers meet on Monday. Diplomats said 37 people and entities will be targeted with an asset freeze and travel ban for human-rights abuses.

When German Foreign Minister

Annalena Baerbock

first suggested placing the IRGC on the terrorism list in October, the response was lukewarm.

European diplomats pointed to the fact that the organization was already listed in 2010 under the EU’s sanctions regime for weapons of mass destruction. However, those sanctions are due to be lifted later this year under the terms of the nuclear deal.

Write to Laurence Norman at laurence.norman@wsj.com

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