Last week, several op-eds appeared in international media condemning Western officials including European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini for their attendance at the second-term inauguration of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Articles by such critics of the Iranian regime as former European Parliament Vice President Alejo Vidal-Quadras suggested that this would send a permissive message regarding Iran’s domestic human rights abuses and foreign provocations. Meanwhile, outlets like the Algemeiner published pieces emphasizing the fact that Western attendees would be taking their place among a “galley of dictators and war criminals,” as well as the heads of Iran-backed terrorist groups.
At the head of much of this controversy was Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who was among the first to arrive in Tehran for Rouhani’s inauguration ceremony, which took place on Saturday. The Mugabe government is under heavy international sanctions as a result of its notorious human rights abuses. Nonetheless, Rouhani praised the relationship between the two countries, thereby effectively broadening Tehran’s recurring dismissals of Western criticisms regarding Iran’s own human rights abuses.
The Iran Project reported upon Rouhani’s post-inauguration calls for even closer ties with Zimbabwe, which emerged from a direct meeting between the two national executives. That report and another by Zimbabwe News pointed out that Rouhani emphasized the “independence” of the African state, in an apparent reference to mutual defiance of Western powers including the United States. While American and European sanctions on the Iranian nuclear program were suspended as a result of the 2015 nuclear agreement, sanctions remain in place on contributors to the Iranian ballistic missile program and the terrorist sponsorship that is headed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The Donald Trump White House and more recently the US Congress have moved to expand those sanctions, resulting in strong protests from Iranian officials including Rouhani.
The Zimbabwe News article indicates that Monday’s meeting between Rouhani and Mugabe seemed to include plans for future violation of sanctions on both countries. The article noted that Zimbabwe owns uranium deposits for which mines could be developed with the help of foreign financing. For years, Zimbabwe and Iran have had an agreement in place for the export of that resource to the Islamic Republic for use in its nuclear program and potential nuclear weapons development. On Monday, Mugabe reportedly reinforced that agreement, thereby bolstering suspicions among Western officials who think the Islamic Republic of Iran is pursuing secretive development of the uranium supply chain and other aspects of its nuclear program, so it can quickly ramp up that program once the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action has ceased to be enforced.
While Tehran denies the implication that it is “violating the spirit” of the nuclear agreement, Iranian officials have generally been less prone to denials regarding other illicit activities, including support of terrorist groups, although the officials deny the accuracy of that label. Delegations representing both Hezbollah and Hamas were reported to be in open attendance at Rouhani’s inauguration ceremony, virtually alongside Mogherini and a other Westerners. As with Mugabe, the relationship between the Iranian government and these groups was reinforced in the immediate aftermath of the ceremony.
Iran’s English-language propaganda network Press TV proudly reported upon a meeting that had taken place between the Hamas delegation and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on Monday, in which Zarif affirmed that the mission of the Palestinian terrorist group was among the most important priorities for the Islamic Republic and that its position on the issue was unchangeable. In the same meeting, Hamas representatives called for Islamic unity around the issue of Palestine – something that Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has urged by calling for worldwide financial donations with the express purpose of arming Palestinian militants.
Such publicly acknowledged support of terrorism highlights concerns among critics of the JCPOA, regarding the possibility of Western capital being funneled into illicit activities. These are among the concerns underlying the criticisms of Western attendance at Rouhani’s inauguration. Many of those criticisms are coming from figures who are similarly critical those European businesses and policymakers that are pushing for more exploitation of the de-sanctioned business environment created by the JCPOA.
Contrary to the urging of those who see these things as potential contributors to Iran’s terrorist sponsorship and domestic repression, there were indications on Monday that the trend toward greater European-Iranian cooperation was ongoing. The Associated Press reported, for instance, that French automobile manufacturer Renault had solidified an agreement with Iran that had first been explored last September. The report indicated that Iran would begin local production of 150,000 Renault vehicles per year, as the Islamic Republic sets its sights on increasing its overall car production from 1.35 million to 3 million units per year.
While this and other deals with French companies had been in the works for some time, other developments appear to be a direct result of the bilateral talks that surrounding Rouhani’s inauguration. The Science Times reports that Pio Garcia-Escudero, the president of the Spanish Senate had met with Rouhani on Sunday after attending Saturday’s ceremony. In that meeting, Garcia-Escudero praised the JCPOA for “positive outcomes” that were supposedly visible in the economic relations between the two countries. Thus the Spanish legislator seemed to recommend the continued exploitation of the agreement and the neglect of Western criticism regarding its lack of positive impact on Iranian behavior.
In that same meeting, Rouhani reportedly placed particular emphasis on the role of the European Union in keeping the JCPOA in force, even after the American President indicated that he would like to brand the Islamic Republic as out of compliance and to tear up the deal. While this may indicate that Rouhani’s government intends to utilize the deal to continue expanding economic relations with the European Union, it is also possible that Tehran’s emphasis is primarily on keeping the deal in force in order to exploit its benefits for Iranian relations with already-established allies like Russia and China.
Although Rouhani campaigned for reelection on promises of moderation, domestic reforms, and further engagement with the world, he has already distanced himself from some campaign promises including the promise of freedom for Green Movement leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, which had been a key promise of his initial 2013 campaign as well. At the same time, Rouhani’s superior, Supreme Leader Khamenei has continued to emphasize the notion of “resistance economy” that would weaken the impact of US-led sanctions, and Khamenei’s leading advisor, Ali Akbar Velayati recently declared that cooperation with Russia and the European Union would serve Iran’s interests specifically by isolating the US.
Additionally, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi was quoted by Iranian media as saying in July that cooperation with Russia was the Islamic Republic’s top economic priority, as evidenced by the recent inking of a 2.5 billion Euro contract, which Aragchi called a sign of broader expansion.
It is certainly true that Tehran is striving to benefit from European investment, as a great deal of foreign capital is needed for the country’s long-term plans. The National Iranian Oil Company expects 15 billion dollars’ worth of such investment by April, and the Iranian Oil Ministry is looking to both European and Asian countries for as much as 200 billion dollars over the long term, according to WebWire. Still, Europe may remain a lower priority throughout that process, if only because of the contrary pressures coming from hardliners who are close to the Iranian supreme leader and the powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
In spite of the attendance of Federica Mogherini and other Western officials at Rouhani’s inauguration, friendly gestures toward these individuals are still widely rejected within the Iranian power base. Arab News reported on Monday that conservative media in Iran had widely criticized Iranian parliamentarians for lining up to take selfies with the head of EU foreign policy. Kayhan newspaper, which is particularly close to the supreme leader, employed familiar Iranian rhetoric in referring to Western nations as “enemies” of the Islamic Republic and accusing parliamentarians of embracing “violators” through their reception of Mogherini.
Such pushback from influential Iranian voices may diminish the economic benefit that Europe accrues from the JCPOA, while strengthening ties between Iran and other actual or potential adversaries of the West. But it remains to be seen whether this will raise more substantial questions among Western policymakers about the pursuit of their own economic ties with Iran.