Several experts interviewed doubt the effectiveness of EU sanctions on the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, whose capital escapes European radar. These would bring them closer to other sanctioned states, including Russia. Some advocate the creation of a “task force” like the one that tracks down the Russian oligarchs close to Vladimir Putin.

More than 200 people and 37 Iranian entities now fall under the restrictive measures imposed by the European Union. The Revolutionary Guards, the ideological army of the Islamic Republic of Iran, are particularly targeted.

This is the eighth salvo of sanctions aimed at the protagonists of the repression orchestrated in the country since the death, on September 16, of Mahsa Amini, a young woman died after being arrested by the vice squad for having “badly worn” her veil. Sanctions that have grown as the Iranian authorities continue to repress protesters, but whose effectiveness most of the experts questioned doubt.

The latest measures, adopted on May 22, add five names to the list of those sanctioned. Prosecutor Sirjan Moshen Nikvarz, Tehran Police Commander Salman Adinehvand, and Secretary of Iran’s Supreme Cyberspace Council, Seyyed Mohammad Amin Aghamiri, are thus targeted for their role in the surveillance and arrest of demonstrators. or death sentences.

The IRGC Cooperative Foundation, the body in charge of investments within the Revolutionary Guards, is also added to the European blacklist, leading to the freezing of assets held by the foundation in the EU and the banning of all funding . In Iran, the Revolutionary Guards own many companies, particularly in the construction, transport infrastructure and airport sectors. Experts estimate that they hold 20 to 30% of the economy, but the phenomenon remains difficult to quantify because of its opacity, ensured by numerous ramifications and companies created at different levels, without traceability.

Funds that do not pass through Europe

Author of a book on the Revolutionary Guards, CNRS researcher Stéphane Dudoignon underlines a problem of scale. Only 216 people are sanctioned out of the 120,000 to 190 000 esteemed members of the Guardian Corpsof which little is known.

The European measures consist of an asset freeze, a ban on travel to the EU and on making funds or economic resources available to people on the list. But “the voices of circumvention are multiple to the point of making them ineffective”, adds the specialist in Iran.

“The Revolutionary Guards have overseas assets funds placed via a system of generalized corruption”, explains David Rigoulet-Roze, associate researcher at Iris, citing in particular the Transparency International ranking on corruption in the world in 2022 which places Iran at 147e rank out of 180 countries.

Corruption denounced within the Iranian regime itself and used as an argument to dismiss high dignitaries when they become too disturbing or during clan wars. This is the case of Ali Shamkhani, former secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, the highest security body in the country. This Revolutionary Guards general was dismissed on May 22, accused in part of corruption following allegations that his family had made millions of dollars thanks to an oil transport company which helped Iran to escape the sanctions – which he denied.

However, the funds generated in this type of embezzlement rarely transit through Europe, but rather through Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Georgia, Kazakhstan or even Turkmenistan according to a survey published by Paris Match in FEBRUARY. This reveals that these countries have served as financial centers to recently receive funds from the conversion into currency of goods smuggled out of the country by the Revolutionary Guards. The United Arab Emirates have also been placed on the gray list of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) since March 2022 – or Financial Action Task Force – a global observatory specializing in money laundering.

To be more effective, suggests Kasra Aarabi, head of the Iran program at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, a European and American “task force” should be set up to identify and sanction the Iranian regime’s oligarchs and elites. living in the West, like what is being done to track down and punish the Russian oligarchs loyal to Vladimir Putin since the invasion of Ukraine, in order to dissect the financial arrangements, to investigate the nominees and the front companies in the hands of the family members of these sanctioned oligarchs and to target them too with sanctions.

“Solidarity between sanctioned”

Moreover, explains an academic who requested anonymity, the main investors in Iran currently being the Russians, the Taliban, the Iraqi Shiite militias and China, these countries have no fear of European sanctions, themselves being victims. “On the contrary, it promotes solidarity between the sanctioned”, advances this researcher. The Revolutionary Guards thus remain safe from European sanctions and the country strengthens its diplomatic alliances.

“If it is to sow discord within the body of the Guardians, the effect is counterproductive”, continues this source. “The Pasdaran see themselves as a besieged citadel so when you are sanctioned, you show your loyalty to the system. On the contrary, there is a promotion of personalities who are targeted by Western measures”, he underlines, referring to the case of ‘Ebrahim Raisi. The current Iranian president, blacklisted in the United States for “complicity in serious human rights violations” in November 2019, was elected head of state less than two years later.

The unity of the body of the Guardians is all the more solid, underlines Stéphane Dudoignon, that those of the new generation “owe everything to the Supreme Guide”, unlike the old ones, put in place by Ayatollah Khomeini and who had acquired a certain popularity thanks to their military exploits or their economic successes at the head of large companies. “We have already seen former officers call on the authorities to show more leniency. But today, it would be more difficult for these new generations, more centered around Ali Khamenei,” he adds.

The Student Basij Target Organization

On the other hand, underlines Kasra Aarabi, this last set of European sanctions includes an unprecedented component. He attacks another group hitherto unpunished in Europe and intimately linked to the Revolutionary Guards : the Student Basij Organization (SBO). This branch of the Basij organization is accused of carrying out violent repression on university campuses. The Guardians oversee this corps of Islamist volunteers in universities, which has been deployed in the face of protests sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini.

“Those who are part of it will no longer be able to travel, study or work in Europe. Members of the SBO can be easily identified through a number of methods, including open source intelligence, since this organization has websites public websites with lists accessible in each Iranian university”, says the Iranian-British researcher, author of an article dedicated to this group. According to him, the members of the SBO will be concretely affected by the European sanctions since they traveled and worked in Europe. “The Iranian state gives them scholarships and special grants for this, as a kind of privilege to retain them,” he describes.

A legal basis for future lawsuits

In the opinion of most of the experts questioned, if the successive sanctions put in place by the Europeans do not risk bringing down the regime or to impoverish the Guardians, it is above all a question of showing that the EU maintains pressure on this organization, in particular “to satisfy European public opinion” marked by the repression of demonstrations in Iran.

Member of the Iran Justice collective, the Franco-Iranian lawyer Hirbod Dehghani-Azar emphasizes the importance of making names public. “The EU produces individual sanctions to please us. It’s a second best, even if it has a certain effectiveness because the people sanctioned will not be able to afford to waddle around the world, it points the finger at them and that makes them lose opportunities. Let’s not forget that it makes them lose money to evade sanctions.”

The lawyer, who collects with colleagues from Iran and the diaspora evidence of abuses by the security forces of the Islamic Republic, is banking on the future. He believes that these sanctions will serve as a legal basis for prosecution: “They feed a bundle of clues that provide material for our action.” He works in particular to have the body of the Revolutionary Guards registered on the list of terrorist organizations. A request from the Iranian diaspora and MEPs, to which the European Council did not respond.