Millennial Letters

The EU Cozies with Iran at Its Peril

Since last summer’s nuclear deal, Iran has been pushing a full court press to be treated as a legitimate member of the international community. Its behavior suggests otherwise. Since the accord, Tehran has stepped up support to the Assad regime in Syria, persisted in testing nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, and continued human rights abuses within its borders. Nevertheless, on October 25, the European Parliament passed a resolution affirming its desire to normalize political and economic ties with Iran. Effectively, Tehran would be poised to reap dividends of closer ties without changing its conduct.

The resolution does contain language critical of Iran for its rights abuses and brazen anti-Semitism—thus drawing the ire of Iran’s hardliners. But it is more of a fig leaf to cover the EU’s true motives: ending the sanctions firewall and the taboo of ties with Tehran.

The EU’s imports from Iran dipped considerably in 2012 when it implemented an oil embargo on the Islamic Republic. Pursuant to the nuclear deal—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA—Europe will remove some of the most dangerous Iranian actors from its sanctions lists by 2023 or earlier. Worse, some sanctions, like those on Iran’s premier terror-financing institution Bank Saderat, have slipped well in advance of that deadline.

According to the EU Parliament resolution, Brussels seeks “a dialogue of the four Cs’”—namely talks that are comprehensive, cooperative, critical, and constructive. Similarly, an April 2016 EU Parliament report called for “strategic and structured dialogue” with Iran. On its face, this attempt to broaden the range of issues on the table with Tehran is commendable. In actuality, it is tantamount to falling back on an already-failed policy.

In the 1990s, Europe embraced several forms of this policy to no avail. Each time, it was given a different moniker—ranging from “critical dialogue” to “comprehensive dialogue”—but its lackluster results in changing Iranian behavior at home and abroad speaks for itself.

In a display of wishful thinking, European proponents of this allegedly new policy insist they can build on the nuclear deal to change Iranian behavior. By flooding Tehran with cash, the JCPOA merely provides the regime with more resources with which to pursue its destabilizing regional ambitions. European defenders of normalization with Iran maintain that the accord “was a huge prize for peace and stability in a troubled region.” But this ignores the fact that Tehran is already intricately involved in a number of regional conflicts. Members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and various Shiite proxies and militias are fighting in battlefields across the region at Tehran’s behest. At home, business interests connected to or controlled by the IRGC stand to gain the most from the deal. Europe would be bolstering those whom it should be weakening.

A similar challenge exists with respect to Iranian airlines, which are set to service new destinations in the aftermath of the nuclear deal. The US Treasury designated Mahan Air in 2011 for its support for terrorism, with specific reference to its role in the Syrian theater. Recently, reports emerged that Mahan has grown its operations in Europe—where it remains unsanctioned—as well as the Caucasus.

Tehran’s penchant to illicitly procure material for its missile program has also continued unabated. According to Germany’s intelligence services, Iranian attempts to acquire “proliferation-sensitive” technologies reached “a quantitatively high level” in 2015. Normalization with Tehran would require ignoring these disturbing trends.

As the global business community eyes Tehran, Europe should not squander this opportunity to meaningfully alter Iran’s policies. Before rushing back to regain its place as the Islamic Republic’s largest trading partner, the EU must recognize that unless it demands changes to Iranian behavior upfront, Iran will retain the upper hand in any post-deal negotiations. European advocates of the nuclear deal insist that it would shore up security and stability in an uncertain world. Now is their chance to put their money where their mouth is.


Behnam Ben Taleblu is a Senior Iran Analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies



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