Western Criticisms of Iranian Behavior Apparently Not Affecting Trade Relations

Outlets that maintain focus on Israeli matters, such as Bridges for Peace, have emphasized provisions in that resolution that condemn the Islamic Republic’s Holocaust denial. That report also points out that amendments were added to address human rights violations and Iran’s support for the Assad regime in Syria, after members of the European Parliament criticized the relatively uncritical language of the original draft. However, there was also reportedly resistance to this pressure in some areas, as amendments specifically calling for the release of political prisoners and an end to torture were defeated. 

Meanwhile, Iranian news outlets like Tasnim News Agency conveyed Iranian officials’ rejection of the critical amendments that did make their way into the resolution. Ignoring the defeated amendments, those reports suggested that the final language of the document was unfair to Iran and reflected unspecified political motives. The Tasnim report off-handedly mentions that Iran embraced the aspects of the resolution that “defined areas of cooperation with Iran in all fields,” but it focused primarily on the criticisms levied against the resolution by Iranian judiciary chief Javad Larijani. 

In a statement, Larijani accused the European Union member states of “lacking the competence” to instruct Iran on the correction of human rights violations. He also suggested that the West was maintaining a double standard in its focus on Iran’s abuses. This same attitude was reflected in a report by the Indo-Asian News Service, which quoted Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Bahram Qassemi as similarly rejecting Western pressure on human rights. That report, however, primarily emphasized the prospects for cooperation outlined in the European Parliament’s resolution – prospects that it says were welcomed by Iran. 

Qassemi further remarks seemed to embrace the idea of expanded contact between the two sides, but also to suggest that that contact would be used by Iran in an effort to diminish human rights criticisms without addressing the abuses they highlight. “Iran is ready to explain about Islam’s views on human rights under a peaceful atmosphere and through talks,” he said. “It attempts to interact with others to bring the two sides’ views closer to each other.” 

This reflects an Iranian approach to human rights issues that has been highlighted in the past by human rights organizations and political groups opposed to the Iranian regime. Iranian Foreign Ministry and Judiciary officials, as well as the country’s domestic human rights monitor, have frequently accused the international community of trying to impose a Western view of human rights on the Islamic Republic. Such appeals to cultural relativism have been used to dismiss criticism of some human rights issues on which there are defined international standards, such as the reservation of the death penalty for perpetrators of the “most serious crimes” and for persons who were over the age of majority at the time of their offenses. 

Iran regularly ranks as having the highest rate of executions per capita, largely as a result of its execution of non-violent drug offenders. It is also one of the only nations in the world that continues to carry out executions of minor offenders. Some of the latter type of cases have been reviewed in recent months by the Iranian Supreme Court, apparently in response to international pressure. But the death sentences have been consistently upheld via decisions that affirm their legality under Iranian law, thereby rejecting the international standard. 

Although these sorts of moves help to keep alive the international criticism that constituted one aspect of this week’s European Parliament resolution, they have had no obvious impact on the level of international interest in doing business with state-linked entities in the Islamic Republic. The resolution itself reflects the ongoing pursuit of expanded trade ties, and Iranian officials have variously boasted of the progress that the country is seeing in its own pursuit of foreign investment. 

CNBC recently interviewed Ahmad Jamali, the Iranian director general for foreign investment, about the source of foreign investment and the effects of linger economic sanctions. Iranian officials have repeatedly accused the US of violating the spirit of last year’s nuclear agreement by maintaining those non-nuclear sanctions and thus making reintegration into the international financial system more difficult. But in spite of this, Jamali claimed that the majority of foreign investor interest is coming from Europe, with Asian countries taking second place. 

Signs of investor interest are even coming from the European countries that traditionally take a leading role in criticism of the Iranian regime’s behavior. In fact, while Bridges for Peace emphasizes that Germany has insisted that the Islamic Republic recognize the state of Israel as a precondition for normalized relations, Iran’s media suggests that economic relations between Germany and Iran have already gone beyond normalization. 

German exports to Iran have reportedly increased by 25 percent, when comparing the first seven months of the current Iranian year to the same period last year. The 1.27 billion dollars’ worth of exports represent the largest such figure out of all European countries, and the fifth largest overall. 

Meanwhile, there are signs that the United Kingdom is making efforts to keep pace with the German expansion in trade with Iran. The Financial Tribune reported on Thursday that the UK had removed Iran’s Bank Saderat from its sanctions list, thereby potentially freeing up more trade between the countries. The financial institution in question handles an average of 42 million transactions per month and its newly de-sanctioned status reflects a broader European Union project to remove sanctions on such institutions after the third month of October. 

Of course, such agreements exert no force upon the United States government, major factions of which are strict in their criticism of the Iranian regime and persistent in their insistence upon keeping sanctions in force. Yet, notwithstanding the critical aspects of the European Parliament’s resolution, various European entities are attempting to pressure the US to remove its own sanctions on Iranian financial institutions, in order to make it easier for European businesses and banks to do business with the US and the Islamic Republic at the same time. 

As one example of this trend, The Guardian reported on Thursday that the former British ambassador to Iran, Sir Richard Dalton has roughly emulated Iran’s taking points about the nuclear agreement, saying that the West risks breaching it if it does not help to give Iran full access to the international financial system. 

But even opposing factions of the US government seem to agree that Dalton’s criticisms are unfounded. The Obama administration has praised its own compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action by saying that it had gone beyond the requirements of the deal in the interest of encouraging Western investment in Iran. At the same time, the Republican-led US Congress has criticized the White House for going too far with the implementation of the JCPOA, not merely lifting sanctions and permitting investment but actively encouraging Europeans to do business with a regime that continues to sponsor terrorism and carry out human rights violations. 

Although the European Parliament’s resolution seems to acknowledge these criticisms, it does not seem to share US lawmakers’ concerns that increased economic contact with Iran will facilitate more of the same behaviors and increase the reach of Iran’s influence. But the recovery of the Iranian oil economy has already been linked to Iran’s worsening confrontations with its adversaries in the broader Middle East. 

Reuters reported on Thursday that Iran’s oil exports were actually expected to fall to a four-month low in November. But the anticipated figures still represent an increase to 156 percent of last November’s exports, a situation that Reuters describes as a “post sanctions bonanza.” While the coming month’s relative lull will not reverse that trend, it may very well allow Iran to continue working against the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, of which it is a member. 

In April, the Iran regime had already greatly expanded its oil production but resolved to avoid cooperation with OPEC over output levels until its domestic production had surpassed self-described pre-sanctions levels. Since then, Iran’s self-reported growth figures have slowed so as to represent ongoing enrichment of the Iranian oil economy, but without exceeding its standards for non-cooperation with other oil exporters.