By Mahmoud Hakamian
European Policy toward Iran is Still Torn between Conciliation and Confrontation
In a sign of growing tensions between Europe and the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Netherlands has recalled its ambassador to the Middle Eastern nation. The move is the latest in a series of reciprocal gestures stemming from Iranian assassination plots that were carried out on Dutch soil.
In January, the Dutch government issued statements highlighting these incidents, the 2015 killing of Mohammad Reza Kolahi Samadi and the 2017 killing of Ahmad Mola Nisi. The head of the Dutch intelligence agency was quoted as saying, “Iran's involvement in the assassinations underlines the importance of our investigation of the Iranian regime's intentions.” Dutch officials accordingly began to put pressure on fellow European states to impose sanctions on the Islamic Republic, as France had already done in the wake of an investigation that confirmed Tehran’s responsibility for a thwarted bomb plot that would have targeted an Iranian opposition rally near Paris last June.
Pressure from the Netherlands was arguably instrumental in convincing the entire European Union to adopt the French measures, which imposed economic sanctions on Iranian intelligence and two individuals known to have operated in its employ. In any event, the Dutch government’s public commentary was met with virulent condemnation by Iranian officials, who refused to acknowledge any past wrongdoing.
The Iranian regime reiterated this disregard for well-founded foreign criticism on February 20 when it expelled two Dutch diplomats, apparently without cause and without explanation. On Monday, Al Jazeera quoted the Netherlands’ Foreign Minister Stef Blok as saying that the expulsion was purely retaliatory, being motivated by the Dutch government’s previous expulsion of two Iranian embassy workers who were suspected of involvement in terrorist activities.
In a letter to the Dutch parliament explaining the decision to recall the Dutch ambassador to Iran, Blok described the Iranian government’s actions as “unacceptable” and damaging to the relationship between the two countries. But both the cause and the consequence of those actions suggest that neither the Netherlands nor the Islamic Republic is showing any interest in backing down amidst the conflict over past and ongoing Iranian threats to opposition figures living within or visiting European territory.
At the same time, there are tentative signs that other European nations are inclined toward further responses to the pressure that they have received from the Netherlands and other entities that are familiar with the history of Iranian terror threats. Tensions between Iran and Britain escalated over the weekend when Tehran condemned the British government for its recent announcement that it would be banning the Iran-backed terrorist group Hezbollah in its entirety.
Britain had already designated the military wing and the external security wing of the organization as terrorist groups, but this farther-reaching measure brings this aspect of foreign policy into line with that of the United States. Under President Donald Trump, the US has also extended terrorist designation to the entirety of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, instead of just its foreign expeditionary wing, the Quds Force.
The administration’s famously assertive stance on matters of Iran policy is indicative of the pressure that Europe is facing not only from within its own ranks but also from the US over Iranian terror threats and human rights issues.
But Britain’s decision may not, however, be a response to these pressures alone. It may also have reflected awareness of a changing regional situation, and specifically one in which Tehran has been widely deemed responsible for trends affecting instability and the persistence of open conflict. Although Iranian officials sought to discourage the British measure by crediting Hezbollah as a contributor to the fight against Islamic State militants in Syria, many Western governments and their allies in the Middle East are deeply concerned about how the Syrian Civil War has provided the Lebanese terrorist group with a permanent foothold outside its home country, particularly along a different border with Israel, which Iranian officials have frequently sworn to destroy.
Regardless of the particular decision-making process underlying Britain’s announcement last week, it is clear that Iran’s influence – via its own forces, Hezbollah, and other Shiite paramilitaries in the region – is a point of contention for several leading European powers. Iran’s own Fars News Agency seemed to acknowledge this on Sunday, although it did so in the context of a report that disputed reports in other media about specific conditions that have been set by Europe in advance of the full implementation of a plan to circumvent US sanctions.
After the US pulled out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal last year, the European signatories – Britain, France, and Germany – initiated efforts to preserve the deal even in the face of renewed US sanctions. Prominent among their ideas was the creation of a “special purpose vehicle” for transactions with the Islamic Republic, which has since come to be known as the Instrument for Supporting Trade Exchanges, or INSTEX, and which formally launched last month but has yet to be seriously utilized.
The Fars report quoted an official by the name of Mohsen Rezaie as saying that even if INSTEX was fully implemented, it would likely not be considered sufficient to guarantee Iran’s continued adherence to the nuclear deal. At the same time, as the head of Iran’s Expediency Council, Rezaie represents a major obstacle to one of the supposed European conditions for the system’s implementation, namely Iranian compliance with the anti-money laundering standards laid out by the Financial Action Task Force.
Hardliners and powerful institutions like the Expediency and Guardian Councils have already prevented the adoption of multiple pieces of legislation that would establish this compliance, and they have done so specifically out of concern that the FATF standards will undermine Tehran’s financial support of Hezbollah. Those same concerns would no doubt be extended to any of the paramilitary organizations in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere that the Iranian regime has helped to establish in keeping with the Hezbollah model.
What’s more, it may not only be FATF compliance that Europe is holding over Iran as a condition for utilizing the sanctions-busting trade mechanism. The reports that Fars denied on Sunday suggested that four European governments had demanded changes to Iran’s policies or strategies not only in Syria and Iraq, but also in Hezbollah’s home country of Lebanon, and in Yemen, the site of devastating civil war between a Saudi-backed government and Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
Fars quoted Iran’s Foreign Minister spokesperson Bahram Qassemi as saying that reports to this effect are “incomplete and incorrect.” But it remains to be seen whether there is any basis for that assertion. If the reports are in fact accurate, it would present a significant new obstacle to a long-term agreement that keeps the Iran nuclear deal in force and promotes reconciliation between Iran and the West. This is especially true because any serious demands by Western powers would play into the prefabricated, confrontational narratives of high-ranking Iranian officials, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
As Reuters reported on Monday, Khamenei has always been skeptical of the nuclear agreement and the preceding negotiations. In fact, while those negotiations were still ongoing, the supreme leader barred his subordinates from engaging in dialogue with the US or the European Union about any topic other than modest restrictions on the Iranian nuclear program. This no doubt contributed to the situation that set the stage for US withdrawal, insofar as the negotiating parties were unable to establish restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile development or its regional role.
Khamenei’s suspicions reportedly intensified after that withdrawal, prompting him to deliver a speech in which he predicted that Europe would fail to uphold promises regarding the protection of Iranian markets from US sanctions. Notably, this attitude did not simply reflect Khamenei’s understanding of the logistics involved in that protection, but his overall opinion of Europe. “[The Europeans] are bad,” he said. “They are really bad. I have a lot to say about the Europeans; not because of their current policies, but their mischievous nature over the last few centuries.”
Of course, European nation’s conduct “over the last few centuries” are hardly relevant to the policies of current European governments toward the Islamic Republic, which has only existed since 1979. Over the past forty years, many critics of the Iranian regime have actually accused those governments of being overly conciliatory or even offering the regime policies of “appeasement.” And these criticisms continue to the present day, even as some European nations elect to impose sanctions and otherwise shine a light on the regional instability and global terrorism that can be traced back to Tehran.
The Washington Examiner published an editorial to this effect on Monday. In it, American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Rubin took aim at the government of Germany, noting that it joined Iranian authorities last month in celebrating the 40th anniversary of the revolution that brought Ayatollah Khomeini and his theocratic system to power. In the author’s view, congratulatory messages from German officials reflect an “enthusiasm for ties to one of the world’s most murderous regimes” that stems from a desire to gain access to Iranian markets at virtually any cost.
Rubin offered several specific examples of terrorist acts and human rights abuses to which Germany is allegedly still willing to turn a blind eye, even in the wake of warnings from the Netherlands and other countries that have been subject to significant Iranian threats. These warnings and the supposed disregard for them are both indicative of broader phenomena, and it remains unclear which trend will be followed by Europe as a whole.
The impulse to pursue dialogue with an antagonistic Iranian regime remains on display in the form of a Joint Commission scheduled for Wednesday to discuss the future of the nuclear deal, as well as the recent extension of the deadline for FATF compliance from February until June.
The Europeans may yet adopt assertive positions like those that have defined recent US policy toward Iran, but for the time being it appears as if some European states remain at cross purposes.