Europe’s dangerous illusions about Iran

Amir Taheri
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It was an almost surrealistic scene the other day when the European Union’s foreign relations spokeswoman Federica Mogherini traveled halfway around the world to New Zealand to lobby for “continued trade with the Islamic Republic of Iran” in defiance of sanctions re-imposed by US President Donald Trump.

Here was an official of a bloc of democracies supposedly allied to the United States not only criticizing an American policy, something quite legitimate, but inviting others to oppose it with full resolve. Almost on the same day Alistair Burt, the minister in charge of the Middle East in the British Foreign Office, told BBC Radio 4 that the United Kingdom, still part of the EU, was adopting a similar position against Trump’s move.


By re-imposing some of the sanctions imposed by four of his predecessors, Trump may have been impolitic or provocative. But he has betrayed no signature and violated no treaty. All he has done is refusing to continue suspending some sanctions as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama had done before him

Amir Taheri

Other European Union officials have also expressed similar views. The problem is that they don’t really know what they are talking about.

Illegitimate intervention

To start with, they all insist that the so-called “nuke deal” concocted by former US President Barack Obama is inviolable because, in Mogherini’s words, the EU must “honor its signature.” However, the EU never signed the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), nor did anyone else. There is no signature to honor or not.

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In any case, though hovering on the sidelines like a ghost, the EU was never part of the negotiations that took place between Iran on one hand and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany on the other.

Moreover, the so-called 5+1 group that negotiated with the Islamic Republic was an informal group with absolutely no legal existence and certainly no legally binding mission and no mechanism for enforcing its decisions and answerability.

If Mogherini and Alistair Burt are serious in their campaign in favor of the JCPOA they should re-write it in the form of a treaty signed by EU members and ratified by their respective parliaments or at least the EU’s Council of Ministers. Even then, for JCPOA to acquire some legal dignity it would have to be re-written in the form of an act of parliament and submitted to the Islamic Majlis in Tehran for proper ratification according to the Iranian Constitution, something that the Islamic government is loathing to do.

All of that would require an agreement on a single official version of the deal, which means discarding the various English and Persian versions in circulation.

By re-imposing some of the sanctions imposed by four of his predecessors, Trump may have been impolitic or provocative. But he has betrayed no signature and violated no treaty. All he has done is refusing to continue suspending some sanctions as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama had done before him.

Other factors point to EU’s hypocrisy in this matter.

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With the re-imposition of American sanctions, thousands of firms trading with both Iran and the US would face a dilemma: which of the two markets do they choose? It is not in the EU’s mandate to resolve that dilemma for them. So far, and at least two years after the ”nuke deal” was unveiled, European firms are not quite sure how or even if they can treat the Islamic Republic as a normal trading partner. Nor has the EU’s lobbying for the mullahs persuaded them to free a dozen European Union citizens still held hostage in Tehran about whom neither Mogherini nor Burt ever make a noise.

If sincere, the EU could use a range of tools at its disposal to encourage at least some firms to continue trading with Iran in areas affected by the re-imposed sanctions. Four-fifths of Iran’s trade with the EU bloc is with Germany, France, the UK and Italy. All those countries have well-established mechanisms for export protection but none is prepared to use them in support of trading with Iran. Interestingly, some of the sanctions that the EU is still keeping in place against Iran are tougher than those re-imposed by Trump.


Leaving all that aside, the EU’s Trump-bashing on the issue will not change some facts. Even supposing the EU did something to render the re-imposed American sanctions less painful or utterly ineffective the concerns that Trump has raised about aspects of Tehran’s behavior would remain worthy of consideration by Europeans.

Shouldn’t one try to persuade or force Tehran to stop “exporting revolution” i.e. terror? Doesn’t peace and stability in the Middle East benefit from an end to Tehran’s meddling in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Bahrain, not to mention Afghanistan and Pakistan? Would it not be a good thing if the present rulers in Tehran allowed the Iranian people a greater space for self-expression and participation in shaping their nation’s destiny?

The EU could play a positive role by acting as a broker between Iran and the US rather than go for empty diplomatic gesticulations. The EU should seek to persuade Iran that its traditional cheat-and-retreat strategy peaked out under Obama and its pursuit would only lead to disaster.

Obama encouraged the mullahs in their reckless strategy by supposedly granting them “the right to enrich uranium” as Islamic Foreign Minister Mohammad-Javad Zarif goes around boasting. However, all nations have the right to enrich uranium if they so wish or even to build nuclear weapons.

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The mullahs wanted another “victory over the Infidel” and Obama gave them the illusion of one through secret negotiations in Oman. Obama’s behavior persuaded the mullahs that regardless of what mischief they may make at home or abroad no one would make them pay a price for it.

Even better, a faux anti-American profile might give a morally bankrupt and repressive regime some prestige in parts of the world where anti-Americanism is the last refuge of every scoundrel. In a talk in New York in 2016, Zarif noted that without its “anti-Imperialist” profile the Islamic Republic would be “just another Pakistan”, which in his world view means a nobody.

Trump isn’t repeating Obama’s mistake by getting involved in secret shenanigans favored by the mullahs; he is playing above board. His message is, behave differently and you shall be treated differently.

That may or may not be the right policy, but it is at least a policy. The EU, on the other hand, has no policy on Iran apart from using it as an excuse for a little bit of Trump-bashing, a favorite global sport these days.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat.


Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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