Glaring Gaps in EU Sanctions on Iran

For years, the U.S. government has maintained an expansive sanctions architecture against the Islamic Republic of Iran—under both Democratic and Republican administrations. But its European allies’ sanctions infrastructure pales in comparison. There has been great scrutiny focused in recent weeks on what U.S. partners have been contributing or withholding in the pressure campaign against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine—namely Israel and Saudi Arabia. But as Tehran and Moscow expand their dependence on each other, missing from this conversation has been the woefully inadequate European Union (EU) policy response to Iran’s global aggression.

The partisan jousting over the collapsed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) from 2015 has often overlooked the fact that U.S. allies in Europe for far too long have offered a permissive environment for the Islamic Republic to project its power and influence. There is no more glaring example of this dynamic than the disconnect in the terrorism sanctions lists on both sides of the Atlantic. In the United States, Executive Order 13224 and the Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) list are two core authorities for punishing adversaries. In 2007, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Quds Force was first sanctioned as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) under Executive Order 13224. Fast forward to 2017, pursuant to U.S. law, the Trump administration sanctioned the IRGC in its entirety under the same counterterrorism authority. Then came 2019, when the U.S. State Department designated the IRGC as an FTO.

This is not to mention the top brass of the IRGC which have been under American terrorism sanctions for at least a decade. For example, the commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force Esmail Ghaani was sanctioned as an SDGT in 2012. There are at least 224 persons and entities in Iran alone under U.S. sanctions with the SDGT stamp.

This stands in contrast to the EU terrorism sanctions list, which includes 13 persons and 21 entities. Of the individuals designated, only six are Iranian, including MOIS operative Assadollah Assadi, who was convicted of a plot to bomb an Iranian opposition rally in France in 2018, and Quds Force officers Abdul Reza Shahlai and Gholam Shakouri, who conspired to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States using explosives at a Washington, DC restaurant in 2011. But the EU has never sanctioned Ghaani—who was deputy commander of the Quds Force when Shahlai and Shakouri were sanctioned. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, who serves as commander of the IRGC’s Aerospace Force, is also missing from this EU hall of infamy despite being an SDGT in the United States. Hajizadeh commands an entity whose drone unit the U.S. government assesses was responsible for the attack on the Mercer Street commercial vessel off the coast of Oman in July 2021 which killed two European nationals. While Hajizadeh is sanctioned by the EU under separate authorities—for nuclear and ballistic missile activities—those very same sanctions are scheduled to be lifted next year under the JCPOA.

The EU terrorism entities list is similarly lacking. There is only one Iranian organ which has been sanctioned. That is the directorate for internal security of Iran’s Intelligence Ministry. The IRGC appears nowhere on this list, despite it being sanctioned under multiple authorities in the United States. While the IRGC’s Quds Force has been subject to EU restrictive measures pursuant to its role in the war in Syria and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) proliferation, it has not been placed on the EU terrorism list. Even more concerning is the Quds Force’s WMD-related EU sanctions are scheduled to be lifted next year under the JCPOA. The Quds Force’s tentacles have long reach in Europe. In recent months, there have been public reports of a Quds Force operative admitting to assassination plots in Germany and France, including of French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy. The IRGC’s Aerospace Force’s WMD-related EU sanctions are also scheduled to be lifted under the JCPOA next year, but it too is nowhere to be found on the EU terrorism list, despite its complicity in killing two European nationals last year. And even then, it was only Washington, and not Brussels, which levied sanctions.

It is true that the EU terrorism list applies to persons or groups involved in terrorist acts when a decision has been taken by a “competent authority”—usually meaning a judicial process. Likewise, some discrete IRGC entities and individuals have been sanctioned by the EU using different non-terrorism rationales. This may explain, in part, the gap with U.S. terrorism designations and should prompt a discussion about future amendments to EU regulations to harmonize them with Washington’s structure. But even if this were the reason, multiple IRGC officers and operatives have been charged and found guilty with terrorism-related offenses in the United States and this should have prompted the EU by now to have added the IRGC to its terrorism list. In August 2022, a member of the IRGC was indicted over a murder-for-hire scheme of a former U.S. national security advisor. Yet the EU has been missing in action on sanctions when it comes to the IRGC’s starring role in international terrorism.

The EU sanctions sunsets become even more problematic given Iran’s provision of arms to Russia for use in its war crimes in Ukraine. In less than a year, the only EU sanctions on Iran’s Aircraft Manufacturing Industries Corporation (HESA) are scheduled to be lifted under the JCPOA. HESA manufactures the Shahed-136 drones—which are also designed and developed by Shahed Aviation Industries—that have killed European civilians on the Mercer Street and in Ukraine. Even more troublesome is under the terms of the JCPOA, the EU arms embargo on Iran is due to be lifted next year as well.

Beyond the restrictive measures, EU member-states also have considerable leverage over Iran diplomatically given their own bilateral ties with Tehran and respective embassies. Aside from an announcement by Germany that it will be restricting visas for Iranian officials and suspending dialogue with Iran on economic and energy issues over its crackdown on protesters, no other EU member-state has implemented similar measures even after Iran effectively became an enemy combatant in EU candidate country Ukraine.

Thus, the EU has a significant role to play in a pressure campaign against the Islamic Republic. But its countermeasures to date have been wanting. Not counting human rights abuse designations, the EU has only levied one terrorism-related sanction on Iran since 2013 and four Ukraine-related designations since Russia’s war started months ago. While there are encouraging reports the bloc is considering ramping up its penalties on Iran, including signals about consideration of an IRGC terrorism-related designation, the Biden administration needs to influence its European allies in recognizing the Islamic Republic for the terrorist regime that it is, not the quixotic trading partner they hope it will be.

Jason M. Brodsky is the policy director of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI). His research specialties include leadership dynamics in Iran, its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and Iran’s proxy and partner network. He is on Twitter @JasonMBrodsky.