But there is little doubt that one major reason for Trump scaling back his former promises is because cancelling such a multi-party agreement is no simple matter. On one hand, former US ambassador to the UN John Bolton characterized the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action as a “one-day agreement that is being constantly renewed.” But on the other hand, if the US is held responsible for the deal’s failure, it is unlikely that the other parties will joint in re-imposing the international sanctions regime that brought Tehran to the negotiating table in the first place.
If the Trump administration wishes to force the JCPOA’s cancellation, its immediate responsibility is to demonstrate why punitive measures are still the proper way to deal with the Islamic Republic. And this task is complicated by various Western entities’ desire to overlook Iranian misbehavior in the interest of securing potential lucrative oil and export contracts.
European businesses have become noticeably more wary of doing business with Iran ever since the threat emerged of renewed tensions with the US. But they have not ceased altogether in pursuing economic relations. On Monday, Reuters reported that the Polish oil refiner Lotos is poised to sign a supply contract with Iran in 2018. It and some other European firms are looking to Iran as a potential means of reducing their dependence on Russia, but it remains to be seen whether the US will take more aggressive measures to discourage such shifts.
Even among those firms that are waiting for clarification on this issue, many of them appear to still have one foot in Iran. The French energy giant Total was among the first to sign a preliminary gas field development deal with the Islamic Republic, but it now says that the deal cannot be finalized until the US renews waivers to the sanctions that were in place before the JCPOA was implemented. Still, according to Hellenic Shipping News, Total is continuing to pursue the planned business arrangement in the meantime, in hopes that international law will not ultimately bar it from completion.
And whereas Total is committed to obeying the law in the event that US-Iranian relations continue to move in an unfavorable direction, not every French company stands to be affected by this in the same way. Reuters reports that the French automobile manufacturer Peugeot-Citroen is moving forward with plans to invest in a local plant in the Islamic Republic. The associated deal emerged out of the new environment created by the JCPOA, but once Peugeot has established its presence in Iran there is little for it to fear from theoretical US sanctions, since the company does not have extensive manufacturing or distribution operations in the US.
This sets Peugeot apart from its major German competitors, which have reportedly shown interest in the Iranian market but have necessarily been much more wary about pursuing deals until the international conditions are more clearly defined. One might think that this wariness would be even more prevalent in national governments that anticipate having dealings both with the Islamic Republic and with the United States during the Trump era. But this is not strictly the case, as is evident from the recent visit to Tehran by representatives of the Swedish government.
According to New Kerala, the Swedes signed five memoranda of understanding with the Islamic Republic expressing the intent to collaborate in a number of different areas of supposed common interest. The visit appears to contradict the renewal of hardline policies that is clearly being advocated by the Trump administration; but on the other hand it has arguably served the administration’s interest by bringing about protest from European activists and voters who are worried about the human rights implications of opening up to Iran’s hardline theocracy.
Reuters notes that the general subject of one of the Swedish-Iranian memoranda of understanding was “women and family.” This is noteworthy because the Swedish government publicly identifies itself as feminist, whereas the Iranian regime is infamous for violations of women’s rights and has repeatedly arrested people for activism on this point or for supposedly advocating a “feminist soft revolution” against the theocratic system.
The Washington Post reported on Monday that in light of this severe misalignment of principles, female members of the Swedish delegation were criticized in their own country for wearing Islamic headscarves during the visit. Along with loose-fitting clothing, such head coverings are mandated by law in the Islamic Republic, and this law also applies to foreign nationals and non-Muslims. Yet, many Swedes appear to have regarded either compliance with this law or the underlying visit itself as a betrayal of the country’s progressive identity.
The Post quoted, an Iranian expatriate and the organizer of the “My Stealthy Freedom” campaign against forced veiling, as saying, “By actually complying with the directives of the Islamic Republic, Western women legitimize the compulsory hijab law. This is a discriminatory law and it’s not an internal matter when the Islamic Republic forces all non-Iranian women to wear hijab as well.”
In the long run, this sort of criticism may give European policymakers additional incentive to follow the Trump administration’s leadership in returning to an assertive policy on Iran, in light of the knowledge that their constituents will react negatively to the normalization of relations with a regressive regime. And of course, women’s rights are only one area of concern for human rights activists and critics of the Iranian theocracy. In fact, in making their trip to the Islamic Republic, the Swedish politicians effectively ignored another human rights story with specific significance to their country.
Eurasia Review reported on Monday that the Iranian judiciary had handed down a death sentence against Ahmadreza Jalali, a physician and academic who was arrested 10 months ago but who resided in Sweden and was only visiting his Iranian homeland to attend a conference. Jalali’s wife maintains that he is a political prisoner, and as is typical in cases of political imprisonment the judiciary has failed to release details about the charges against him, despite confirming the death sentence.
Jalili was deprived access to counsel and was reportedly threatened with additional capital charges for his refusal to “fully cooperate” with his interrogators. His death sentence apparently stems at least in part from accusations of “collaboration with enemy states,” but these sorts of accusations are frequently levied against dual nationals, apparently in absence of real evidence.
It is possible that Jalili’s sentencing was made more severe in light of his decision to initiate a hunger strike on December 26, and his refusal to suspend that hunger strike upon request of the judiciary. Human rights organizations have reported upon a major upswing in the number of these protest actions in recent months, aimed at bringing attention either to particular injustices or to the overall harsh condition of Iranian prisons.
On one hand, Eurasia Review indicates that the governments of Sweden, Italy, and Belgium, along with European Union officials, “have been making an effort to secure the release of Jalali.” But one might easily argue that the decision to sign memoranda of understanding with the Islamic Republic under these conditions shows that it does not stand to face serious consequences for the death sentence.
Of course, this argument could also be generalized to include more than just human rights cases with specific connections to particular European countries. The Iranian human rights record is notoriously out of step with the modern world, owing to political imprisonment, a world-leading rate of executions, refusal to halt the execution of juvenile offenders, the use of corporal punishments like flogging and amputations, and so on.
European policymakers and the Obama administration came under fire from human rights groups in recent years for apparently privileging the Iran nuclear deal and prospective economic deals ahead of human rights issues. But opponents of the Iranian regime, including Iranian expatriates throughout the Western world, organized a number of protests against this situation, often focused on state visits like that which was recently concluded between Sweden and Iran. It is possible that such protests may secure greater traction with the Trump administration as it looks for additional support for a global initiative to put renewed pressure on the Iranian regime.