Iran is clearly Israel’s number one security threat — but it may come as a surprise that it is also Britain’s. With its nuclear weapons program and network of terrorist proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Gaza, Judea and Samaria and elsewhere, the danger from Tehran has long been understood in Israel.
Now the Sunday Times has revealed that UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman believes Iran to be the biggest threat to Britain’s national security. Even more so, it seems, than the growing hostility from Russia since the UK so strongly backed Ukraine following Putin’s invasion last year.
In February, the Metropolitan Police Service, Britain’s policing lead on counterterrorism, reported that 15 Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) terrorist plots against Iranian dissidents and British citizens had been identified in the UK during the previous year. Braverman believes the IRGC is stepping up its activities even further, including attempts to recruit organised crime gangs to target regime opponents.
Iran’s terrorist targeting of the UK and British interests elsewhere goes way back. Several years ago, when I worked in British intelligence, we knew that IRGC cells in the UK were actively laying the groundwork for terrorist attacks on our own soil, as well as elsewhere in Europe, both against dissidents and to be launched in the event of a major U.S. or Israeli attack against the Iranian nuclear programme.
In 2015, Israeli intelligence enabled British security agencies to disrupt a bomb factory in north-west London, including three tonnes of ammonium nitrate, that had been set up by Iran’s terrorist proxy Hezbollah under the direction of the IRGC. Turned into explosives this material would have been enough to kill hundreds of people. During the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, the IRGC and its proxies killed large numbers of British soldiers as well as over 1,000 American and allied troops.
In July 2021 an IRGC drone attack on the oil tanker Mercer Street off the coast of Oman killed a British citizen and another member of the crew. In February this year a Persian language media organization, Iran International, which has attracted the displeasure of the Tehran regime, was forced to relocate from London to the U.S. amid growing fears of lethal attacks against its staff.
Despite this murderous litany — and even Braverman’s acknowledgment of the increasing threat it poses to British citizens — the UK government still refuses to designate the IRGC as a terrorist entity. The best they have done so far is to impose sanctions on IRGC members, the effects of which are at best negligible. Designation as a terrorist group would, however, have a major impact, making it a criminal offence to be a member or to fund and express support for its activities. The Jewish Chronicle in London has now powerfully demonstrated the urgent need for this.
Following an investigation, this week the paper exposed the IRGC’s efforts to radicalise British students to Islamic jihad and foment hatred against Jews and other non-Muslims. Since 2020 the Islamic Student Association, which operates in many prominent universities across the UK and is headquartered in London, has hosted at least eight high-level IRGC commanders, some of whom are sanctioned by the British government for grievous human rights abuses.
One of the IRGC speakers urged his audience to violence against non-Muslims. He boasted of how Qasim Soleimani, the previous leader of the IRGC Qods Force who was eliminated in 2020 in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad, intended to wage war on Europe and made clear his work is continuing. He described the Holocaust as fake and foretold “the end of the life of Zionists and Jews across the world”.
Another IRGC commander claimed Jews “created homosexuality, are destroying the environment, are destroying the family”. He proclaimed the “era of the Jews” will soon be at an end and told the students they were “young soft-war officers, who must convey our message… to all the world”. This outrageous indoctrination has been watched online by many thousands.
On top of this incitement to violent jihad and propagation of hate, the Jewish Chronicle revealed in June that at least 11 British universities have been collaborating with Iranian engineers on research that has potential military applications, including developing faster, high-altitude drone engines, upgraded fighter jets and battlefield armour plating as well as technology that could allow hundreds of swarming drones to be operated simultaneously using lasers.
This latter activity may well be illegal under current sanctions against the IRGC, involving as it does IRGC-linked establishments and one must hope it is under investigation by the authorities. But the Islamic Student Association is not breaking the law by hosting IRGC commanders while the group remains un-designated, although the speakers’ incitement to violence — promoted and disseminated by the ISA — may breach existing UK counterterrorism legislation.
Such platforms could be immediately denied to the IRGC by its designation as a terrorist group. So why has the British government failed to take action while the IRGC plans terrorist attacks on its territory and at the same time works to radicalise students in Britain?
Firstly, like the U.S., it remains wedded to the folly of re-establishing a nuclear deal with Iran, and in pursuit of that dangerous objective remains set on appeasing the ayatollahs. Although the IRGC was labelled a terrorist entity by the previous U.S. administration in 2019, the White House has made no effort to get its allies to follow suit, and perhaps is even encouraging Britain to hold back, given Biden’s enthusiasm for re-kindling the deal.
Secondly, in view of the all-pervading centrality of the IRGC in Iran, its designation would amount to branding the whole regime as a terrorist entity, which is of course the reality. London fears this would cause a break-down of diplomatic relations that would lead to closure of the embassy in Tehran, with potential impact on intelligence operations in the country. That argument has greater validity than craving a deeply flawed nuclear deal, given Iran’s malign influence in the region and across the world, but is outweighed by the immense advantages of curtailing the IRGC’s murderous activities.
Unfortunately, Britain has a track record of misjudgement and weakness in this field. Just as the present government seems to be bending over backwards to mollify Iran, its predecessors made similar mistakes in the 1990s. Back then there was an unspoken policy of tolerating Islamic extremist facilitation of terrorism overseas as well as radicalising activities in the UK.
The misguided and morally indefensible hope was that with this indulgence they would not turn their guns on us. Despite many years of pressure among our allies and some at home, and the discovery of the bomb factory in London in 2015, the government also failed to designate the entirety of Lebanese Hezbollah until 2019. Apart from anything else, designating the IRGC is a logical extension of that belated decision, given it is they who set Hezbollah up, fund and arm it and direct all of its terrorist attacks.
Colonel Richard Kemp is a former UK Armed Forces commander