Britain looks set to designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organisation.
Britain’s Foreign Secretary, James Cleverley, stated in late December that this was in response to Tehran’s, “domestic and international actions,” a reference to the Islamic Republic crushing widespread protests in recent months and its ongoing interference in multiple states across the Middle East.
This is the latest incident in a tempestuous relationship between London and Tehran, dating back to the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
In recent years, the British embassy in Tehran has been attacked, tankers from each state have been detained, while British-Iranian citizens have been held in Iran, notably Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Most recently, Alireza Akbari, an Iranian politician holding British citizenship was executed on 14 January, with Tehran ignoring London’s pleas for clemency.
Britain’s sanctions might therefore be viewed as part of ongoing tensions.
London is somewhat behind the curve on this, with its western allies the United States, France, Canada, Australia and New Zealand having all already designated the IRGC as a terrorist organisation.
What is striking is how little impact this action is expected to have, either on the IRGC, Iran’s regional behaviour or its specific attitude to Britain.
Where once Britain was a major external power in the Middle East, both commercially and militarily, today few in London even expect this sanction to change any behaviour which seems more aimed at signaling displeasure rather than a potent threat of further action.
The reality is that Britain has been a declining force in the region for some time. Recent changes in the global, regional and British context have accelerated this trend and London is on the fast track to becoming a spent force in the Middle East.
From empire to counter-terrorism
For the first half of the 20th century, Britain was the most powerful player in the region, overseeing some of the most consequential decisions in modern Middle Eastern history. It midwifed the decline of the Ottoman Empire, first by occupying Egypt and the Gulf, before defeating it militarily during the First World War.
It then partitioned the region into European-style nation states, with London and Paris ruling the lion’s share, as well as facilitating the emergence of Israel by promising Zionist leaders Palestine for their desired homeland.
Historians and contemporaries debate the merits of these creations, which included empowering many of the elites that remain in charge today, but all agree that Britain’s legacy was substantial.
Britain was displaced by the US as the pre-eminent power in the Middle East after the Second World War, precipitated first by the 1956 Suez Crisis and then the withdrawal from the Gulf in 1971, and Washington’s main external rival in the region became Moscow, not London.
However, the UK retained important cultural, economic and military ties.