For 43 years, the Western world has tried to persuade the Islamic Republic of Iran to forgo its hostility towards the international community and its violence towards its own citizens. The recent spectacle of Iranians risking their lives to protest their government under the slogan “Woman, Life, Freedom” has provided the impetus for Western countries to consider stronger measures.
Consequently, there has been increasing focus on the role played by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in the regime’s abusive treatment of its citizens and its sponsorship of terrorism. The IRGC is a multi-billion-dollar organization widely understood to be the driver behind Iran’s terrorism machinery. The European Parliament recently passed a resolution calling for the IRGC to be designated a terrorist group, while the U.K., France and Germany are now considering such a listing.
Here in Canada, the tone of our government has also noticeably shifted. In October 2022, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced further actions against Tehran, with Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland clearly stating that Canada considers the IRGC a terrorist organization.
But Ottawa has glaringly sidestepped the implementation of the logical conclusion of Freeland’s declaration, refusing to list the IRGC as a terrorist organization under the Criminal Code.
The debate over whether to take this action has often focused on how a terror listing would impact former IRGC members already living in, or attempting to come to, Canada. Opponents argue that those forcibly conscripted into the IRGC should not be unfairly penalized.
For these former individual members of a listed terrorist entity, as opposed to the terrorist group itself, the real implication typically lies in heightened immigration and travel scrutiny. They could be declared inadmissible to Canada on security grounds or, once they are here, they could have difficulty crossing the border into the United States. Critics suggest this would be unfair.
But this conscription argument reflects a lack of understanding about how the IRGC operates and what other solutions may be available under Canadian law.
Researchers Saeid Golkar, and Kasra Aarabi have demonstrated that those recruited into the IRGC should not necessarily be deemed victims of the Iranian regime and its policy of compulsory military service. Indeed, their research suggests that most IRGC recruits would be more accurately categorized as self-selected conscripts who were ideologically vetted by the regime.
Unlike Iran’s conventional armed forces – called the Artesh – the IRGC is constitutionally mandated not as a defender of Iran’s state sovereignty, but as the “protector of the [Islamic] Revolution and its achievements,” committed to “guarding the principle of government by the Supreme Jurist and the principle of jihad.” This includes the global export of the Islamic Revolution by “any means.” The IRGC’s recruitment process has evolved over the last four decades to reflect its raison d’etre as a radicalized ideological force.
In 1989, the regime started purging the IRGC of members suspected of insufficient loyalty to the tenets of Khomeinist ideology and to the infallibility of Iran’s “Supreme Leader.” Then, beginning in 2001, the IRGC shifted to recruiting new personnel extensively from the Basij Freedom Forces. The Basij is a volunteer force that serves and trains under the IRGC command structure, and is rightly feared by many Iranians. It is unsparingly brutal in enforcing regime edicts, attacking foreign embassies and crushing domestic unrest.
The IRGC’s rigor in recruitment was adjusted again in 2010 when it further constricted its pool of recruits in pursuit of ideological purity in its ranks, preferring to draft active members of the Basij or those with exhaustively vetted ideological credentials. As noted by Golkar and Aarabi: “since 2010 more than 70 per cent of draftees in the IRGC have been active members of the Basij.”
The radicalization of these recruits is then augmented by the IRGC’s enhanced indoctrination system called “ideological-political-training” (IPT). This makes up roughly half of the recruits’ mandatory training. Golkar suggests that the IPT program consists of tens of thousands of “trainers” with oversight “to control the thoughts, words, and deeds of IRGC personnel” and their families. This allows them to “assess their level of belief in the clerical establishment and active support for the Supreme Leader.”
National security affairs professor Afshon Ostovar wrote in Foreign Policy that the IRGC’s loyalties “are neither to Iran nor bound by geography. The political entity that they serve is transnational.” Other research indicates the IRGC’s vast apparatus of indoctrination prioritizes loyalty in its millions of recruits to the Khomeinist pan-Islamist creed described by Amir Taheri in The Persian Night.
The inductees then go on to become some of the globe’s most radicalized propagators of the Islamic Revolution, whose terrorist exploits in more than 40 countries have included hostage-takings, assassinations, transnational repression and organized criminality. Graduates of this system are also responsible for the incarceration, torture and murder of Canadian citizens. Importantly, the IRGC in its entirety has been found liable for terrorism by Canadian courts.
This research suggests that significant numbers of IRGC members – particularly those who have served beyond the 18-24-month period required for mandatory military service – are not victims of forced conscription. Instead, they likely previously volunteered with the Basij and/or had their ideological credentials approved by the regime.
Any former or current member of the IRGC seeking entry to, or residing in, Canada – whether volunteer or conscript – must therefore be vigorously scrutinized, regardless of whether the IRGC is a listed terrorist entity. It must be determined that these individuals do not present a threat to Canada, to Canada’s Iranian diaspora, or to other communities currently targeted by the Iranian regime.
At the same time, Ottawa can ensure to the best of its abilities that an IRGC terror listing would not subject those who were forcibly conscripted and uninvolved in IRGC atrocities to be penalized in their future travel.
Notably, section 42.1 of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act contains a mechanism for overriding a finding of inadmissibility to Canada. It allows the minister to permit admission despite membership in a terrorist organization, if justified on national security and public safety grounds. Forced conscription and the absence of involvement in IRGC violence, supported by evidence, should fit these parameters. If additional carve-outs in the law are necessary, we are confident they can be quickly developed.
The IRGC is a terrorist entity of global reach with access to unmatched resources. The gravity of its threat demands that Canada fully employ its arsenal of legal weapons to deter, impair and delegitimize this entity, as so many Iranian-Canadians have demanded. The federal government should list the IRGC as a terrorist organization now and deal with the conscription issue sensibly. The courage of the protesters on the streets of Iran should be reflected in the determination of Canadian leaders to get this done.