By Edward Carney
On Thursday, an editorial in Bloomberg dismissed Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s efforts to portray his government as more trustworthy than that of the US in the wake of his American counterpart’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
While the article did not dispute the findings of the International Atomic Energy Agency that have determined Iran to be in compliance with the terms of the erstwhile seven-party agreement, it pointed instead to Tehran’s more longstanding and arguably more important commitments with regard to international human rights conventions and universal standards of behavior in international relations.
The editorial focused primarily upon the hostage-taking of Western nationals by Iranian security forces, and it noted that the wife of one such hostage, Princeton University graduate student Xiyue Wang, has sent six letters to Iran’s mission to the UN since 2016, only to have all inquiries ignored.
The article’s author, Eli Lake, suggests that this is indicative of an Iranian policy that was also on prominent display during Rouhani’s address to the UN General Assembly, in which he spoke at length about the nuclear deal but declined to engage with the world community over issues of hostage taking, human rights abuses, or interference into the affairs of surrounding nations.
But the Bloomberg piece did not limit its criticisms to Rouhani or to the Iranian regime more generally. Instead, it noted that while Rouhani’s penchant for distraction was unsurprising, it was “slightly more surprising… that the Europeans would rather talk about the nuclear deal, too.”
Presently, more than half a dozen Western nationals are known to be in Iranian custody on the basis of unsubstantiated charges of espionage. And to Lake and other critics of European policy, the ongoing emphasis on the nuclear deal is seen as potentially being very detrimental to their cases.
According to Reuters, British Prime Minister Theresa May held a private meeting with Rouhani on Tuesday against the backdrop of the UN General Assembly and later reported to the press that she had used the opportunity to lobby for the release of the Iranian-British charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was arrested just before returning home from a family visit with her then-two-year-old daughter more than two years ago.
But it is unclear whether May’s entreaties to Rouhani would rise to the level of anything more than what the Lake editorial disregarded as “boilerplate condemnations” subordinated to dialogue over the nuclear deal.
Regardless of the answer to this question, the British government’s activity on behalf of its own detained citizen is certainly not representative of broader European policies regarding unlawful detentions and other Iranian human rights issues, especially considering that the United Kingdom is in the process of extricating itself from the European Union.
Meanwhile, for its part, the EU has taken the unusual step of announcing its intention to establish a payment system that would facilitate transactions with the Islamic Republic while circumventing the US dollar and thus, in theory, evading US sanctions.
Lake describes such measures as giving “tacit permission” to the Iranian regime for hostage-taking as well as other malign behaviors, as long as it doesn’t resume full-scale enrichment of uranium.
But for the US, such limited restraints on the regime’s behavior are uniquely unsatisfactory.
Accordingly, US President Donald Trump justified his withdrawal from the nuclear agreement largely on the basis of its failure to promote moderation in the Iranian government or to enforce limits on the regime’s ballistic missile development, regional interference, and so on.
This position was underscored on Tuesday when White House National Security Advisor John Bolton spoke at the United Against Nuclear Iran Summit.
His remarks included a blanket warning to Iran’s “murderous regime” regarding the various behaviors that have been targeted for change by way of a pressure-based US policy. It is a policy for which the Trump administration has sought broader international support this week in the context of the UN General Assembly and a US-chaired meeting of the UN Security Council, which was formally focused on the Middle East and informally targeted the Iranian regime in particular.
UPI quoted Bolton as addressing Iran via the UANI Summit and saying, “Let my message today be clear: We are watching, and we will come after you.”
He did not elaborate upon the action that the US would take in the event of further Iranian misbehavior, but the Trump administration has repeatedly insisted that it is not pursuing regime change but is instead relying upon sanctions and other forms of pressure to force comprehensive changes in conduct.
However, White House officials including the president have also expressed support for ongoing Iranian protests that some observers believe could transform into a new revolution, and Bolton himself is close to the leading advocates of this outcome and a major contributor to the current protest movement, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran.
Crucially, the UPI report specified that Bolton’s list of warnings for the Iranian government included warning against harm to Western nationals, the very issue that the Bloomberg article considers European countries to be neglecting.
But this is not to say that the Trump administration has remained above reproach in the minds of all critics of the Iranian regime and traditional Western policies toward it.
In fact, The Hill published an article on Tuesday that criticized both the US and Europe for a mutual failure to focus on broader Iranian human rights issues.
The article described those issues as the clerical regime’s “Achilles’ heel”, insofar as they have gone a long way toward fueling the anti-government demonstrations that effectively began with a nationwide mass uprising in December and January.
A lack of focus on Iran’s domestic human rights may be a particularly apt focus for criticism of US policy specifically in light of the Trump administration’s apparent support for those protests and for the underlying Resistance movement.
Nevertheless, in his article for The Hill, Alan Goldsmith expressed agreement that European countries have fallen shorter than the US when it comes to exerting pressure on appropriate areas of Iranian policy and conduct.
He pointed out for instance, that unlike the US, the EU has not passed a single new sanction against Iranian individuals or entities since the signing of the Iran nuclear deal in 2015, and has all but ignored the widespread Iranian protests over the past several months.
But the article cited these features of European policy to underscore that greater emphasis on human rights issues by the White House could be a powerful tool for leadership and consensus building in the area of multilateral Iran policy.
“Though our European allies disagree vehemently with us on the nuclear deal,” Goldsmith wrote, “they cannot defend their relative inaction in tackling Iran’s oppression of its own people.”
Of course, few critics of the Islamic Republic would advise that the US focus on such issues to the exclusion of those that it has already made a centerpiece of its pressure-based Iran strategy.
But the White House and the US Congress have both taken significant actions in those other areas, with relatively little backing from their traditional allies.
Another article in The Hill pointed to two new congressional actions that stand to make more of Iran’s regional proxy forces subject to sanctions, thereby addressing threats to Western security as well as avenues for Iran-backed human rights abuses against other peoples of the region.
The article recommends that US policy in the region “go hard against” these militias. That advice is presumably extended to the nations of Europe as well, but in line with Goldsmith’s arguments, such advice may ultimately be better received if it is put in the context of a shared commitment to the defense of universal human rights principles, without particular regard for other political considerations.