The European Union levied new sanctions against Iran's Revolutionary Guards last week over a brutal crackdown on protesters. But some experts question the effectiveness of sanctions, saying they risk pushing Tehran closer to other sanctioned states, namely Russia and China. Instead, they advocate the creation of a special task force similar to the one hunting down Vladimir Putin's oligarchs.
The European Union slapped Iran's Revolutionary Guards with a fresh round of sanctions over the brutal crackdown on protesters following the September 16 death of 22-year-old Iranian Kurd Mahsa Amini, who died after being arrested for improperly wearing the required hijab.
More than 200 Iranian individuals and 37 entities have now been blacklisted by the EU in an eighth round of sanctions over the violent repression of protests that erupted in the weeks after her death.
Five new names were added to the list on May 22, including Sirjan County Prosecutor Moshen Nikvarz; Tehran police commander Salman Adinehvand; and the secretary of Iran's Supreme Council for Cyberspace, Seyyed Mohammad Amin Aghamiri. They were targeted for their role in monitoring and arresting demonstrators, some of whom were sentenced to death.
But the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its obscure investment wing, the IRGC Cooperative Foundation, were the main targets of the sanctions.
The EU hit the IRGC with an asset freeze, an EU travel ban and a prohibition against providing funding or other economic resources to those listed.
The country's Revolutionary Guards are believed to control as much as 20 to 30 percent of the Iranian economy. They own numerous companies, especially in the construction, transport infrastructure and airport sectors. Just how much they control is almost impossible to quantify, however, due to the IRGC's obscure, almost Byzantine web of organisations, deliberately established with multiple layers of subsidiaries that make relationships difficult to trace.
However, the experts FRANCE 24 spoke to said the fresh sanctions were unlikely to have much impact on the Revolutionary Guards.
"There are so many ways of circumventing them (the sanctions) that they are ineffective," Stephane Dudoignon, an Iran specialist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research and author of a book on the Revolutionary Guards, said bluntly. The Revolutionary Guards have as many as 120,000-190,000 members, Dudoignon added, but only 216 of them have made it onto the EU blacklist.
David Rigoulet-Roze, a research associate at French geopolitical think-tank IRIS, agreed and pointed to the ways the paramilitary group has protected its finances. "The Revolutionary Guards have assets abroad: they have funds invested via a widespread system of corruption," he explained, referring to Transparency International's 2022 global corruption index, where Iran was ranked 147 out of 180.
Even some of Iran's most prestigious officials have fallen from grace due to corruption. On May 22, the same day the EU announced its sanctions, Revolutionary Guard General Ali Shamkhani was fired from his job as a secretary of the Supreme National Security Council after allegations that his family had made millions of dollars from an oil transport company that was helping Iran evade sanctions - a charge that he has denied.
The new money routes
But helping Iran evade sanctions is not the only business in the country - funneling money through foreign transit points to convert the cash into foreign currency has become just as important. These funds rarely pass through Europe.According to aninvestigative report published in French lifestyle magazine Paris Match in February, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Georgia, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have become clandestine financial centres where the Revolutionary Guards stash money. Members of the Revolutionary Guards smuggle goods into these countries, the report said, sell them, and are then paid in foreign currency.
In March last year, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the global money laundering and terrorist financing watchdog, placed the United Arab Emirates on its grey list, meaning it is now subject to increased monitoring.
Kasra Aarabi, head of the Iran programme at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change in London, said that since the sanctions will not actually make much of a difference, Europe and the United States should set up a special task force "to identify and sanction Iranian regime oligarchs and elites living in the West, similar to that used to track down and sanction the Russian oligarchs loyal to Putin".
'Sanctions create solidarity among the sanctioned'
Another problem, an academic who requested anonymity explained, is that Iran's main investors at the moment are Russia, China, the Taliban and Iraqi Shiite militias. They don't fear European sanctions because they are already subject to sanctions themselves.
"On the contrary, sanctions create solidarity among the sanctioned," the academic added.
So the Revolutionary Guards remain immune to European sanctions while Iran strengthens its diplomatic alliances.
"If the aim is to sow discord within the Revolutionary Guards, the effect is counter-productive," the source said. "The Pasdaran (the Guards) see themselves as a citadel under siege, so when you are penalised, you show your loyalty to the system. There's even a promotion system for those who are targeted by Western sanctions," he said, referring to Iran's sitting President Ebrahim Raisi who was placed on the United States blacklist for "complicity in human rights violations" in November 2019, but who was still elected to Iran's top job less than two years later.
Dudoignon, of the French National Centre for Scientific Research, said that there is also a deepened loyalty towards the regime among today's Revolutionary Guard members since they "owe everything to the Supreme Leader", Ali Khamenei. Unlike the previous generations of Revolutionary Guards, who were appointed on merit and who acquired a certain popularity through military or financial successes, this new generation is more dependent on their popularity with the supreme leader himself.
"We've already seen former officers call on the authorities to be less severe on civilians. But today, it would be more difficult for this new generation of officers, who are more focused on Ali Khamanei," he added.
Student group sanctioned too
One part of the EU's latest sanctions package stands out, however: the blacklisting of the Student Basij Organisation (SBO).
The SBO is closely tied to the Revolutionary Guards and is accused of leading the violent crackdowns on university campuses following Amini's death.
"Those who belong to it will no longer be able to travel, study or work in Europe. SBO members can be easily identified using a number of methods, including open-source-intelligence given that the SBO has public websites with accessible lists in every Iranian university," said Aarabi, who wrote an article exposing the organisation in April. The sanctions will actually affect the SBO members, Aaraabi continued, because they travel and study in Europe. "The Iranian government gives them special grants and scholarships for this, as a sort of favour in exchange for their loyalty," he said.
Could the sanctions lead to prosecutions?
Although most experts say the EU sanctions are unlikely to bring the regime to its knees, or even restrict the Revolutionary Guards'cash flow, their main goal is to show that the EU is putting pressure on Iran, punishing it for its violent crackdown on protesters.
"The EU produces individual sanctions to please us," said Hirbod Dehghani-Azar, a Franco-Iranian lawyer and a member of the Iranian Justice Collective, adding that it was important to make the names of those sanctioned public.
"It's a stopgap, even if it has a certain effectiveness because the people sanctioned won't be able to swan around the world as they please, they have a finger pointed at them and it makes them lose opportunities. Let's not forget that they lose money by skirting sanctions."
Still, Dehghani-Azar, who is working with colleagues in Iran and the diaspora to gather evidence of abuses by the Revolutionary Guards, believes the sanctions could serve as a legal basis for prosecutions in the future: "They provide a body of evidence that offers material for our mission."
He is currently working to have the Revolutionary Guards inscribed on the EU list of terrorist organisations.
This article has been adapted from the original in French.