Foreign ministers from countries participating in the 2015 Iran nuclear deal held a virtual meeting on Monday to discuss the prospects for salvaging the agreement by bringing the United States back onboard after its presidential transition on January 20.
Although it was the first such meeting of such high-level officials in more than a year, it marked no significant change in strategy for any of the six countries involved. While Russia and China continue to stand firmly behind the Islamic Republic, the three European signatories still refuse to challenge Iran’s theocratic government in any meaningful way.
The British, French, and German foreign ministers essentially used the meeting as an opportunity to beg Iran for patience, in anticipation of the U.S. walking back the assertive policies adopted by the Trump administration and resuming a strategy that closely matches the conciliation on offer from Europe. While the U.S. urged “maximum pressure” on the Iranian government over the past two and a half years, the European Union imposed no new consequences for malign activities, even when the Islamic Republic ceased compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) altogether.
It is difficult to see what incentive Tehran would have to comply with any Western demands under those circumstances. And even if did so, the relevant changes would be limited to activity in the nuclear sphere. Monday’s meeting effectively gave the ayatollahs a free pass to continue their provocations and abuses in other areas, and it suggested that they would face little to no consequences as long as the JCPOA remained technically in force.
Even if the European signatories insisted on rejecting the U.S. view of the JCPOA, they had many opportunities to endorse the broader focus underlying it. The issues that the foreign ministers of Britain, France, and Germany overlooked are manifold, and they should have been at the forefront of policy discussions for any employee of a Western foreign office, especially foreign ministers.
Less than a month before that meeting, a trial began in a Belgian court for four agents of the Iranian government, including a high-ranking diplomat who served as the third counselor at the embassy in Vienna until he was arrested in Germany in July 2018. That individual, Assadollah Assadi, was reportedly the mastermind of a terror plot that would have seen explosives detonated at a rally of Iranian expatriates and their political supporters in the heart of Europe.
A verdict in the case is expected before the end of January, and Assadi could face 20 years in prison for attempted terrorist murder. He is the first Iranian diplomat to be formally prosecuted in such a case, though he is by no means the first to be accused of having ties to terrorist agents and operations.
Nonetheless, the case has received scant attention from Western policymakers, who generally appear willing to let the legal process run its course and then leave it at that.
This attitude essentially ignores input from Belgian prosecutors who have consistently emphasized that the 2018 terror plot was undertaken on orders from high in the Iranian government’s hierarchy. Thus, it sends a message to that government that it will face no consequences for decisions that could have led to the deaths of Western personnel.
This basically invites the ayatollahs to try again. In fact, there is good reason to believe that Tehran will take that invitation even more seriously in the wake of Monday’s meeting, which involved friendly dialogue between Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and his European counterparts.
As Iran’s top diplomat, Zarif is the direct overseer of Assadi and other Iranian diplomats with alleged ties to terrorism. For Tehran, it is surely safe to assume that if Western officials don’t even have a stern word to say to him on any topic other than the JCPOA, their policies won’t be any more assertive toward the government as a whole.
If this assumption goes unchallenged where Iran’s foreign terrorism is concerned, it will surely encourage even more confidence among the ayatollahs with regard to their impunity in domestic affairs. And in contrast to recent Iranian threats against European citizens, the consequences of this perceived impunity are not just theoretical.
Many hundreds of Iranian activists and dissidents have been killed just in the past three years, as the Islamic Republic has moved through a virtually unprecedented period of domestic unrest.
This situation reveals serious vulnerabilities in the clerical state’s hold on power, but it also underscores the lengths to which the government will go in maintaining its grip. When the Iranian people staged a spontaneous uprising across nearly 200 cities in November 2019, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) responded by opening fire on crowds of protesters with live ammunition, apparently aiming to kill in many cases.
And kill they did, in staggering numbers. The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) has estimated that 1,500 peaceful protesters and innocent bystanders were fatally shot in a matter of days, while thousands were arrested and placed at risk of torture and execution in Iranian prisons.
This too went completely unmentioned in Monday’s meeting and has barely been raised at all in European discussions involving the Iranian government. The British, French, and German foreign ministers have once again overlooked a crucial opportunity to address both recent and pending human rights abuses.
The consequences could be dire, and if those consequences still go unanswered, they could set the stage for even worse malign Iranian behavior, targeting foreign adversaries as well as domestic critics.
The NCRI has duly warned that more domestic reprisals are likely to be looming, partly because Iranian authorities remain severely anxious about the prospect of further unrest, and partly because the government faces no apparent consequences – not even the collapse of the JCPOA – if it expands upon the crackdowns it has already undertaken.
The NCRI has also made an effort to emphasize that for European governments, safeguarding the rights of the Iranian people is not only the right thing to do; it is a check on Iranian behavior that might affect Western interests in the long run.
These two aims are so interwoven that it doesn’t matter which one motivates the nations of Europe to change policy. Either way, the necessary outcome is a broader focus and a more assertive tone in any international dialogue with or about Iran’s foreign minister, its president, its supreme leader, or the entire rotten government.