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Though Two-Pronged, Iran’s Approach to International Relations Leans on Aggression

Though Two-Pronged, Iran’s Approach to International Relations

By Edward Carney

As Iran continues to face escalating, simultaneous pressures from domestic unrest and foreign sanctions, evidence continues to accumulate which shows the regime’s inconsistent and often contradictory approaches to international relations. This phenomenon was arguably on display at the beginning of the week when Iranian-European talks on civil nuclear cooperation gave rise to Iranian outreach alongside Iranian threats and ultimatums.

Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, credited the European Union with making concerted efforts to preserve the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and maintain transactions with Iran. But in the context of the same remarks, Salehi declared that Iran was growing impatient for economic rewards from the deal, before warning of “ominous” consequences if the EU does not meet Iran’s “assumed timetable.”

As Iran News Update previously noted, the tensions among Salehi’s various remarks were underscored by concurrent statements from other Iranian officials, including military officers who boasted of an expanded Iranian naval presence and improved technologies.

On Wednesday, EuroNews contributed to the perception of tension between seemingly friendly outreach and belligerent rhetoric during and after the Brussels talks. The report indicated that Salehi had told reporters Iran might be willing to hold talks on human rights issues with Western powers, but only if the EU first takes steps to “rebalance” the nuclear agreement so Tehran feels it is receiving at least as much benefit as it is giving up to its negotiating partners.

The deliberate reference to human rights issues was a departure for the clerical regime, and it is not clear that Salehi has the authority to make promises in this area. In 2015, as discussions were moving toward the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei declared in no uncertain terms that his subordinates were barred from negotiating with the international community over anything other than prospective limits on the Iranian nuclear program.

Furthermore, the regime has always bristled at criticisms of its human rights record, and has made extensive use of its propaganda network in an attempt to turn those criticisms back on foreign “enemies.” In recent years, Khamenei has hijacked popular hashtags and topics of social justice advocacy in Western social media to accuse the US of violating the rights of minorities and women, to a greater degree than the Islamic Republic.

Iran famously maintains a policy of forced veiling for all women, as well as maintaining legal disparities between the genders, as by giving greater weight to men than women in courtroom testimony. Minorities such as the Baha’i religious community are subject to clear, institutionalized discrimination which results in their being routinely barred from access to higher education and employment, among other legal and social penalties.

The Iranian government has its own institution for monitoring domestic human rights issues, but in practice that entity does not serve to investigate reported abuses or provide redress to victims, but instead issues statements disputing international criticism of the regime’s human rights record while conveying the regime’s talking points about the supposed cultural imposition underlying some such criticisms. In light of these longstanding activities, there is certainly grounds for skepticism regarding Salehi’s offer.

There is no indication that the Iranian nuclear chief provided any concrete assurances that Iran would take human rights talks seriously, as opposed to simply sitting down with European negotiators in order to systematically disregard credible accounts of prisoner abuse, institutionalized discrimination, and so on.

Any pre-existing skepticism about Tehran’s “friendly outreach” is no doubt amplified by recent commentary coming from Supreme Leader Khamenei, who holds ultimate authority over virtually all matters of state in the Islamic Republic. On Wednesday, the Algemeiner reported that Khamenei had applauded this week’s unveiling of supposedly advanced military technology and had urged more of the same. In a statement on his official website, the supreme leader ordered military officials: “Increase your capability and readiness as much as you can so Iran’s enemies will not even dare threaten these great people.”

The term “enemies” is used in Iranian propaganda and public statements to refer, first and foremost, to the United States, and then also to various American allies.
The seemingly aggressive nature of Iran’s domestic military buildup has been supplemented by efforts to expand partnerships with other countries and non-state actors that have a similarly adversarial history of relations with the US and its allies.

In one example of this trend, Al-Monitor reported upon recent meetings between Iranian and Russian officials, at which both sides affirmed their commitment to bilateral security cooperation, which could further amplify Iran’s already expanded influence over the broader Middle East and especially conflict areas like Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Al-Monitor also reported that the latest Iranian-Russian security talks are focused on the issue of terrorism, even though threats from groups like the Islamic State, which is deeply at odds with Iran, have diminished greatly in the past year. While public references to anti-terror measures may represent another effort to assuage Western concerns and present a friendly image of the Islamic Republic, they are rendered ironic by the fact that threats from Iran-backed terror groups have seemingly been increasing as Tehran builds on those relationships as part of its overall strategy.

Al Arabiya pointed to this trend on Wednesday when it reported that a spokesperson for the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas issued a statement thanking Iran for its support of the “great march of return,” in which Palestinians have been approaching the Israeli border en masse – an exercise that has so far led to 230 deaths and 12,000 injuries. Iranian officials routinely call for the outright destruction of Israel, and Khamenei has issued statements calling upon Muslims throughout the world to donate money to the cause of arming terrorist groups in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

The White House is notably sensitive to threats against Israel, but the Iranian terror threat has also extended much farther beyond Iran’s borders in recent months. In March, Iranian operatives were arrested in Albania for planning an attack on the residence of 3,000 members of the Iranian democratic opposition group the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran. In June, European authorities foiled a plot to bomb an international gathering organized by the PMOI’s parent coalition the National Council of Resistance of Iran. And in October, another arrest was carried out in Denmark, where an operative was suspected of planning the assassination of Iranian Arab opposition activists.

The simultaneous threats of traditional and asymmetrical warfare by the Iranian regime has presumably contributed to the Trump administration’s unwillingness to undermine relationships with Iran’s other adversaries. Toward that end, the Washington Times reported on Wednesday that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had warned against a congressional effort to limit US support for the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, against Houthi rebels that are backed by Iran. Pompeo argued that by further strengthening Iran’s position in the region, an American drawdown “would do immense damage to U.S. national security interests.”

Pompeo also joined President Trump in expressing support for Saudi Arabia’s claim that its participation in the conflict will come to an end as soon as the Iranian presence is gone. This goes to show that Iran can expect any “friendly” overtures to be promptly rejected by the White House unless they are backed up by a credible commitment to changes in regional behavior. But it is by no means clear that European decision making will follow the same logic.

In fact, on Wednesday the Iranian state news agency Fars issued a report indicating that Austria’s commercial attaché in Tehran was “resolved” to widening trade ties between the two countries. His commentary to this effect comes in spite of the fact that Austria was at the center of the Iranian bomb plot targeting the NCRI rally in June. The mastermind of that plot was a high-ranking Iranian diplomat in Austria named Assadollah Assadi. After the would-be bombers were detained at the French border, Assadi was arrested while visiting Germany. He is currently facing charges in Belgium.

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