On Monday, Foreign Ministers from Iran, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China held a virtual gathering to discuss the future of the Iran nuclear deal or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The meeting resulted in a joint statement regarding mutual commitments to the preservation of that deal. 

The meeting placed much emphasis on the prospect of the U.S. rejoining the JCPOA following its presidential transition on January 20. The European participants sought to portray this as the final opportunity to salvage the agreement and normalize relations with Iran.

They also seemed intent on impressing their Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, with the idea that his country would benefit the most from this outcome. But it’s not clear how seriously Zarif or his handlers in Tehran will take either of these points. 

In the first place, European conduct over the past two and a half years belies the idea that the UK, France, or Germany would be willing to take the JCPOA off life support after next month.

Even when Iran ramped up enrichment and handle the Europeans an opportunity to force reconciliation or re-impose multilateral sanctions, the European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell effectively took those sanctions’ “snapback” off the table, signaling that the reconciliation process could be drawn out indefinitely. 

This continues to have ramifications in terms of Iran’s perception of impunity. At this moment, it is no doubt helping Iranian officials to successfully argue that the Europeans are more desperate to preserve the agreement than they are.

And this practically nullifies any effort by European Foreign Ministers to convince Zarif that his government should rush to embrace the U.S. if it returns to full participation in the JCPOA. 

It’s difficult to imagine the Iranians coming away from Monday’s meeting with any greater sense of urgency than they’ve displayed in recent weeks when their public statements implied confidence in their negotiating position.

Figures like President Hassan Rouhani have long maintained that Iran’s violations of the nuclear deal are reversible, but now they are emphasizing that such reversal would take place only if the U.S. first suspended all economic sanctions and debased itself by apologizing for the “maximum pressure” strategy. 

Tehran Builds New Nuclear Site in Fordo, Breaches JCPOA

Last week, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) even said that revival of the JCPOA may be impossible without some sort of renegotiation. But Tehran rejected that suggestion out of hand and reiterated its conditions for taking a course of action that is clearly much sought-after by European policymakers. 

Even if those policymakers won’t reconsider their commitment to preserving the agreement, they should understand that as long as their desperation remains visible to the Iranians, the process will just be drawn out indefinitely, until tensions between the U.S. and Iran reach a breaking point where one side either gives in or risks a dangerous escalation.

No such outcome would be in the interest of the EU or its member states. And just as importantly, it would not be in the interest of the Iranian people, who are suffering greatly while the international community remains preoccupied with the JCPOA. 

If the UK, France, and Germany challenged that preoccupation just a little, it would go a long way toward convincing Tehran that it incurs real risk by drawing out the issue while imposing demands on the U.S. and its allies.

If they challenged that preoccupation by giving a more prominent place to human rights in discussions of Iran policy, it would also help to safeguard those Iranian citizens who would actively oppose their government’s brinksmanship and malign activities. 

Iran has been experiencing a period of extraordinary unrest for the past three years. It began with a nationwide uprising in December 2017 and January 2018, then reached an apparent crescendo with another, a larger uprising in November 2019.

Both incidents also prompted an extreme backlash from Iranian authorities, particularly the second uprising, which saw the Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) open fire on crowds of protests in a number of cities, killing an estimated 1,500. 

However, even this did not stop mass demonstrations from breaking out just two months later. The people’s resilience is a sign of the Iranian regime’s remarkable vulnerability. That vulnerability could be exploited to compel Tehran toward accepting an agreement that puts more restrictions on its nuclear activities and other threatening behaviors than the JCPOA ever did.

Although, European governments would have to acknowledge that vulnerability first, and in order to do so, they would have to demonstrate that they care about something other than the outcome of nuclear talks. 

Furthermore, It shouldn’t be difficult for Western democracies to show an interest in the regime’s rampant human rights abuses, especially when those abuses primarily target individuals and groups that are advocating for a truly democratic alternative to the existing theocratic system.

Historically, though, crimes much worse than last year’s shootings have gone practically without comment from the Western world because European leaders were too concerned with the prospect of normalizing relations with the so-called “moderates” inside the Iranian regime – moderates like the regime’s President Hassan Rouhani and the Iranian participant in Monday’s virtual meeting, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. 

Those two men’s supposed moderate credentials have been very much called into doubt during their nearly eight years in office. The United States saw fit to respond to those doubts by halting undue praise for regime officials and imposing sanctions that target them and formally recognize them as servants of the regime that remains infamous for human rights abuses, state-sanctioned killings, and emphatic support of foreign terrorist groups. In sanctioning Zarif specifically, the U.S. noted that his role is better described as that of a propaganda minister than a foreign minister. 

Iranian Human Rights Abuses Still Persist, Accelerate 

This is to say that Zarif has defended all of the Iranian regime’s worst characteristics to the international community. He has done so in full awareness of the fact that many Western policymakers are eager to overlook those characteristics as long as there is any hope of progress on narrow topics like the JCPOA.

The limits of this mentality have been tested over and over, with little change. Since June 2018, the EU has even been turning a blind eye to an Iranian terror plot that was thwarted before it led to explosives being detonated in a Paris suburb. The agents of that plot are currently on trial in Belgium, and they include a high-ranking Iranian diplomat Assadollah Assadi who ultimately answers to Javad Zarif. 

While these proceedings were still going on, and while Iranians were being tortured and killed for participation in recent uprisings, European foreign ministers were still talking to Zarif on friendly terms.

Now he will surely tell his government that as long as it keeps the JCPOA on life support, it can get away with almost anything. The EU should work quickly to contradict this message by openly taking action to prevent the next crisis involving Iranian terrorism or human rights abuses.