On December 1, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell tweeted that he had spoken to Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and had discussed “developments in Iran and EU-Iran relations.” However, the only specific issue that Borrell identified was the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which unfortunately remains as the overwhelming focus of nearly all policy discussions related to the Islamic Republic.
“I also stressed the importance of preserving the JCPOA. I will continue as coordinator to work towards full implementation by all parties,” he continued. It is not at all clear how he intends to accomplish this, or what he is willing to sacrifice in order to do so. But his strategy has been notoriously permissive to Iran in the more than two years since the JCPOA has been on life support.
Last January, Iran ceased all compliance with its obligations under the deal, after having already taken a series of incremental steps in its violation. In response, the European signatories triggered a dispute resolution mechanism which threatens to trigger the automatic re-imposition of UN sanctions.
France, Germany, and the United Kingdom could thus have forced Iran to resume compliance or else freed their own policies from the constraints of a faltering nuclear agreement. Instead, the process encountered obstacles from the likes of the EU leadership, with Borrell signaling his willingness to indefinitely extend the timeline for dispute resolution. In absence of a firm deadline, the process carries little to no weight, and this only gives Tehran further reason to believe that it may continue shirking its obligations without consequence.
Emboldened by the EU’s feckless approach, Iran ruthlessly hanged France-based journalist Ruhollah Zam on December 12. In October 2019, Zam was lured into travelling to Iraq, where he was captured by Iranian security forces and then transferred to Iran.
His execution caused an international outcry, even a rare rebuke by the EU, to a point where ambassadors from France, Germany, Italy, and Austria withdrew from an online business forum in Tehran scheduled for Dec 14, which caused the postponement of the event. In announcing the withdrawal of its ambassador from the event, the French Foreign Ministry used the hashtag #nobusinessasusual.
Overall, however, European policy has long been based on conciliation and appeasement of the Islamic Republic. The desire to foster relations with non-existent “moderates” inside the Islamist regime has often resulted in Western policymakers turning a blind eye to abhorrent actions of the regime including actions that directly threatened the lives of Western personnel.
Even more pressing and closer to home, is the trial in Belgium involving a senior Iranian diplomat – someone who answers directly to the Iranian Foreign Ministry.
That individual, Assadollah Assadi, was accredited at the Iranian embassy in Vienna and he stands accused of smuggling explosive material and a detonator into Europe, then passing it along to two would-be bombers who were tasked with carrying it to its final destination just outside of Paris. The target for this operation was a gathering of tens of thousands of Iranian expatriates in support of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). More specifically, Assadi and his co-conspirators evidently hoped to kill the Iranian opposition leader Maryam Rajavi, who delivered the keynote address at the 2018 event.
Had the terrorists not been intercepted in Belgium, it is very likely that the bomb would have killed hundreds of participants, many of whom were citizens of Europe as well as hundreds of European dignitaries . It is equally likely that the death toll would have included some European lawmakers or other high-profile individuals.
The investigators established that Assadi acted on behalf of the state of Iran and there were reports that the blessing came specifically from both Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani. This underscores the fundamental unity between all factions that share power within the Iranian regime.
It is prudent for Borrell and other senior EU official to use the trial, its verdict scheduled for January 22, as a source of additional leverage in broader discussions over Iran’s malign activities and the prospective response from EU member states.
Within those member states, there is already substantial pressure in favour of an assertive response. In the run-up to Assadi’s trial, a group of 240 European lawmakers prepared a statement addressed to Borrell, in which they urged the EU to support collective European policies that made the future of Iranian relations contingent upon the regime taking concrete steps to dismantle terrorist infrastructure and halt its malign activity on Western soil.
The lawmakers stressed, “Considering the Iranian regime’s use of diplomatic cover to carry out terrorist acts, the necessary practical warnings should be given to Tehran, such as the closure of its embassies and the expulsion of its ambassadors and diplomats”.
The 2018 terror plot ought to shed light on Western perception regarding political trends within the Islamic Republic. It will be a huge mistake downplaying the worst of Iran’s malign activities, in particular at the heart of Europe, as well as its brutal treatment of the Iranian people.
The main and first task of every democratic government is to secure the safety and security of its citizens, and for the EU, as a union, the title “High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy” has made the priorities very clear.