Among independent critics of the Iranian regime, there has been a growing sense of well-founded urgency behind calls for more assertive European policies toward the Islamic Republic. Unfortunately, the urgency has been not just ignored but blatantly contradicted by the figures most responsible for setting the course of foreign policy for the European Union and its member states.
Those leaders’ casual approach to dealings with the Iranian regime has persisted in spite of a wide range of escalations on the regime’s part. Those escalations span months or even years, with many critics tracing dangerous trends back to the signing of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. That agreement was immediately controversial on account of providing large-scale relief from economic sanctions in exchange for relatively few concessions from Iranian authorities. It only became more controversial in 2018 when then-President Donald Trump pulled the US out of the deal after citing this and other weaknesses.
Joe Biden’s election as Trump’s successor has arguably put the US on the path back toward compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. However, the actual prospects for a return to the status quo have been called into question by the fact that Biden has called for Iran to reverse its own violations of the agreement in order to earn renewed sanctions relief, and the Iranians have flatly refused to do so. Through it all, the EU has largely supported Iran’s position and refused to aid the US in exerting pressure that might result in renewed negotiations and a stronger deal, or at least a return to conditions as they were before the deal was signed.
It is difficult to imagine the Islamic Republic responding to this posture in any way other than by concluding that it faces no consequences from Europe for taking such provocative steps as installing advanced centrifuges in a fortified nuclear facility or beginning work on the production of uranium metal, a key component of a nuclear warhead. This is a sufficiently alarming prospect on its own. But if the EU’s posture remains unchanged in the days and weeks ahead, there is a serious danger of the regime concluding that it faces little to no consequence for any provocative gestures, even those that threaten human lives on Western soil.
This is because the first week of February was marked by the conviction of four Iranian operatives who had been directed to carry out a terrorist bombing of a rally of expatriate activists near Paris. The terror plot was fortunately thwarted by multiple European agencies, but it is generally understood that if it had been successful, it would have resulted in hundreds of deaths possibly including the Iranian Resistance leader Maryam Rajavi and any number of European lawmakers and dissidents who had participated and delivered speeches as a show of support for those struggling to establish democracy in Iran.
The potential death toll was established at the trial, which took place in Antwerp, Belgium beginning last November. That trial also made it absolutely clear that the four defendants had not been acting on their own initiative but had undertaken the plot in the name of the Islamic Republic, and on orders from high within the regime. Indeed, this conclusion seemed obvious from the outset, when the principal defendant turned out to be a high-ranking Iranian diplomat, Assadollah Assadi.
Assadi was third counsellor at the Iranian embassy in Vienna at the time of the 2018 plot, and documents that were recovered at the time of his arrest showed that he had been in touch with a variety of human assets spanning 11 countries for a period of years leading up to his arrest. His diplomatic status and his apparently leading role in Iranian intelligence operations led many observers to note that responsibility for those operations extends far beyond Assadi and even includes Iran’s top diplomat, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.
This notion was a key component of a statement that was sent to European Council President Charles Michel on Monday, bearing the collective signatures of more than 200 Iranian organizations from a dozen EU nations, plus the UK, US, Canada, and Australia. Referring to Zarif as someone who “facilitates the regime’s terrorist and warmongering crimes,” the statement declared that he and other leading officials in the Iranian regime “must be brought to justice for four decades of crimes against humanity and terrorism” including the 2018 plot.
The statement also urges terrorist designation for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security, as well as the closure of Iranian embassies and institutions in Europe, and the adoption of a trade policy that makes future commerce with Iran conditional upon a commitment to major reforms, including the dismantling of terrorist and intelligence networks in the West.
Unfortunately, if EU policy has changed at all in the wake of the Assadi trial, it has trended in exactly the opposite direction of these recommendations. This point was underscored by another statement that was released on Friday and was signed by four British lawmakers in the name of the International Committee of Parliamentarians for a Democratic Iran. It pointed to the recent announcement of a March 1 start date for the Europe-Iran Business Forum as an example of European policymakers and institutions turning a blind eye to Iran’s malign behaviors.
“This event must be cancelled since it will only embolden Iran and risks inviting more terrorist acts on European soil in the future,” the statement said. It also pointed squarely to the nuclear deal as one of the likely motivators behind this and other acts of European conciliation of the Iranian regime. “Today, the UK and EU must prioritise efforts to end Iran’s state terrorism instead of promoting trade and saving the nuclear deal at any cost,” it added.
Assadi’s recent conviction drives this point home by making it clear that the potential costs of preserving the nuclear deal include eschewing broader punishment for a terror plot that could have killed scores of European public figures or hundreds of Iranian citizens on French soil. The EU’s refusal to pursue accountability for the entire regime would surely leave that regime with an even stronger sense of impunity in such matters. That in turn would elevate the danger of further terror plots, in exchange for nothing more than a return to conditions that showed little promise for pushing the Iranian regime toward reform.
If there is any hope for that outcome, it will be reached only by exerting serious, multilateral pressure on the regime over multiple issues at once. In line with the aforementioned statements, the UK’s Lord Alton issued his own in which he urged the Foreign Office to “downgrade diplomatic relations with Iran until such time that Tehran provides verifiable proof that it has stopped its state terrorism and terrorist activities,” and to model this strategy for EU foreign ministers, who met in Brussels on Monday.
“If Tehran refuses to end its unacceptable behavior,” Alton continued, “then a more firm response such as expelling Iranian diplomats and closing the Iranian Embassy must be considered and implemented.” Such actions may prove to be necessary as an antidote to the impunity that weak European policies have instilled in Iran.