The Government’s announcement that it is designating Russia’s Wagner Group as a terrorist organisation begs the inevitable question: what took them so long? It is not as though the activities of Wagner’s band of mercenary cut-throats were unknown to our intelligence and security establishment before. From its inception in 2014, the group has been at the forefront of Vladimir Putin’s efforts to expand his country’s influence abroad.
Often employed as the Russian president’s private militia, Wagner played a major part in Russia’s occupation of Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2014 and helped to keep the Assad dictatorship in power during the Syrian conflict. Its involvement in Africa has seen it accused of horrific war crimes in countries like Mali, while at the same time establishing a highly lucrative smuggling racket, such as its sales of gold acquired from Sudan, with the proceeds used to fund the war in Ukraine.
As Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, commented when making the announcement, “Wagner has been involved in looting, torture and barbarous murders. Its operations in Ukraine, the Middle East and Africa are a threat to global security.” But if this is the case, why is the Government only now taking the appropriate measures to limit Wagner’s activities? After all, the organisation has virtually ceased to function following the violent demise of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the group’s founder, in a plane crash last month. Certainly, banning Wagner when Prigozhin was in his pomp and playing a critical role in Russia’s military assault on Ukraine would have carried far more weight than making the move after his death.
Then again, as the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee pointed out in July, at a time when the US and Europe had sanctioned roughly twice as many individuals working for Wagner as Britain, the Government showed little interest in proscribing the group. On the contrary, its tolerant attitude even resulted in Prigozhin taking advantage of the UK’s press complaints process to make the absurd argument that Wagner did not really exist and that, even if it did, he did not run it.
But if the Government’s action against Wagner is long overdue, at least it has finally summoned the political will to do something, which is more than can be said for its confused position regarding Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which by some distance remains the world’s most deadly terrorist organisation. The 25,000-strong Wagner Group is a minnow compared with the IRGC, which has around 200,000 active personnel.
Apart from being the custodians of Iran’s Islamic revolution, the IRGC enjoys supreme control over the country’s military, intelligence and security establishments, a role it uses to expand Iran’s pernicious influence throughout the Middle East. Reporting directly to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the organisation boasts its own ground forces, navy and air force, and oversees Iran’s nuclear programme.
Britain has frequently been a target of IRGC operations. British military personnel fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan suffered terror attacks carried out by militias controlled and equipped by the IRGC. More recently a London-based Iranian opposition television network was forced to relocate to Washington after being targeted by Iranian terror cells operating in the British capital.
Yet, despite overwhelming evidence of the IRGC’s hostile intent towards the UK and its interests, the Government has shied away from designating it as a terrorist organisation, preferring instead to place sanctions on key personnel and companies with ties to the group.
The distinction is important because, if an organisation is designated as a terror group, it becomes a criminal offence in the UK to acquire membership, fund or express support for its activities.
Several considerations underpin the Government’s reluctance to proscribe the IRGC. For one, it is argued that such a move would, given the huge influence the movement exerts over the Iranian government, designate the entire Iranian regime as a terrorist entity, which would almost certainly result in a severing of diplomatic ties.
Another key factor is Whitehall’s naive hope of reviving talks with Tehran over its nuclear ambitions – an aspiration that becomes ever more futile the closer the Iranian regime moves towards having the means to construct an atom bomb.
According to the latest report produced by the International Atomic Energy Agency, Tehran now has the ability to produce enough fissile material to complete a nuclear warhead within a week to 10 days. When Tehran already has the means to produce nuclear weapons, what is the point of trying to negotiate a new deal to prevent them from doing so?
A better way to deal with Tehran is to demonstrate unequivocally that Britain and its allies will not tolerate Iranian aggression, whether it concerns terror attacks or nuclear threats.