Since pulling out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the Trump administration has defined its policy toward the Islamic Republic as involving “maximum pressure” through economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation. The policy of the European Union and its member states, by contrast, remains largely undefined. For a very long time, their strategy could be reasonably described as “maximum conciliation”, but recent events have indicated that European lawmakers are occasionally willing to confront Tehran in certain ways over some of its misdeeds.
We should all hope for an overall trend that moves continually – and swiftly – in this direction, but in spite of EU sanctions and a handful of harsh statements, there presently is no overall change. In other words, the European approach to dealing with the Iranian regime can best be described as incoherent. It’s as if Brussels has not yet arrived at a consensus regarding what to expect from Tehran or what can realistically be accomplished. Yet answers to these questions are not as hard to come by as they may first appear.
The secret lies in recognizing and rejecting Iranian propaganda, which is far more consistent than any European initiatives taken in response to Iran’s malign activities and broken promises. Tehran, its foreign lobbyists and its state media, are simultaneously fixated on presenting an image of strength for the clerical regime while giving foreign governments the impression that internal moderation is a realistic possibility.
The latter goal was served by hardline authorities’ embrace of President Hassan Rouhani’s initial election in 2013. This was lauded by some Western observers as a potential signpost on the road toward reform. But notwithstanding Rouhani’s pursuit of the nuclear agreement, nothing in the administration’s record has supported this optimism. Rouhani and his cabinet officials have proven to be loyal servants of the theocratic system, and indeed the system is expressly designed to only allow such sycophants into high office.
The lack of any real divide between the “moderates” and hardliners was made apparent on a number of occasions. For instance, during Rouhani’s first term, the position of Justice Minister was occupied by a figure whose contempt for any meaningful concept of justice could not be clearer. Among the black marks on Mostafa Pourmohammadi’s record was his participation in “death commissions” that sent 30,000 political prisoners to the gallows in the summer of 1988.
In 2016, after new information was released about this massacre, Pourmohammadi publicly declared that he was “proud” of his role in carrying out “God’s command” of death for members of the nation’s leading pro-democracy Resistance group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK). The resulting backlash may have prevented Pourmohammadi from reclaiming his post in Rouhani’s second term, which began in 2017. But at the same time that this was no doubt embraced by some casual Western observers as a sign of progress, the administration’s choice of replacement told a different story.
The current justice minister, Alireza Avaie, participated in the same massacre, in roughly the same capacity as his predecessor, although his public profile on the matter was somewhat more subdued. Furthermore, as of last week, his violently repressive voice is amplified by the new head of the judiciary, Ebrahim Raisi, who has been credited with the very worst brutality during the 1988 massacre, to say nothing of his further record as a state prosecutor.
While the Justice Minister is a member of the presidential cabinet, the judiciary chief is purely an appointee of the Supreme Leader. Together, they signify that the two factions of Iranian politics are in fact of one mind in their rejection of basic human rights. And the very same thing can be said of Iran’s foreign policy, especially in light of the recent threat of resignation by Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who remained in his post after being praised by the Supreme Leader as a reliable figure on the “front lines” of the regime’s war against Western influence.
These are just a few of the many signs that Tehran is every bit as much of an ideological monolith as its detractors believe it to be. And crucially, those detractors consist not only of foreign adversaries like the Trump administration but also domestic activists like the members and supporters of the PMOI, who have been a driving force in recent protests throughout the Islamic Republic.
It is largely because of those protests that the regime has been so transparently turning in the direction of more vigorous repression, as by appointing its most prolific executioners to the highest positions in Iranian jurisprudence. As a consequence of such moves, more than 8,000 civil and political activists were arrested in the year 2018 alone, and 50 were killed. Yet public demonstrations against the regime have continued unabated in what Iranian opposition leader Mrs Maryam Rajavi has called a “year full of uprisings.”
There is far more consistency in these protests than there is in European policy toward Iran. Overwhelmingly, the Iranian people are calling for regime change because they know exactly what to expect from the ruling theocracy: endless repression and a constant state of animosity toward the international community. If the nations of Europe would only come to understand that there is no “moderate” alternative to this policy within the existing regime, they would surely begin to realize that their support could help the Iranian people achieve the freedom and democratic governance for which they are so willing to risk their lives.
*Alejo Vidal-Quadras, a Spanish professor of atomic and nuclear physics, was vice-president of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2014. He is currently president of the Brussels-based International Committee in Search of Justice (ISJ)