The Trump administration consistently admonishes our European allies for their cooperation with the Iranian regime. So the recent rhetorical flare-ups between Tehran and Brussels should come as a welcome surprise, although they have little to do with U.S. policy.
While Europe shows no signs of abandoning dialogue with the Islamic Republic as Washington has, tensions are mounting. Europe, however, has economic leverage over Iran and seems prepared to use it as a means of reining in bad Iranian behavior. That’s something U.S. policy has failed thus far to achieve.
Europe has been cooperating with Tehran on the nuclear deal and helping the Iranians to evade U.S. sanctions. Yet the relationship between Iran and Europe is hardly stable – and Iran’s leaders appear to be unnerved.
“The Europeans should not believe that the Islamic Republic of Iran will wait for long,” Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said on Sunday, complaining about delays from Europe in implementing a non-dollar trade mechanism meant to lessen the blow of U.S. sanctions.
The European Union remains committed to the nuclear deal. But European leaders are enraged by Tehran’s aggressive acts on European soil and the maltreatment of E.U. nationals by the regime in Tehran. Iranian authorities, meanwhile, are growing impatient with Europe’s inability to help administer the economic relief expected from the nuclear deal.
Recently Zarif has attempted to present himself as both distant from Europe to domestic Iranian audiences, while simultaneously reminding European leaders of their obligations to the nuclear deal.
“Might be useful for European partners to actually read the document they signed on to, and pledged to defend,” Zarif tweeted on Monday.
But no one is buying his tough talk.
Without Europe’s participation, there is no nuclear deal. What’s more, one could argue that the continent’s departure would take away any incentives for Iran to remain committed to restrictions on its nuclear activities.
The truth is that Tehran needs Europe – its money and cooperation – for legitimacy and longevity. Which makes continued Iranian transgressions on European soil that much more vexing and unacceptable to Brussels.
In France, the fallout from a failed bomb plot in 2018 has darkened relations. Iran recently named an ex-foreign ministry spokesman as ambassador to France – a sign that Tehran hopes to use its spin machine to stabilize a narrative that has spiraled out of its control.
The botched attack remains obscure. Iran contends that the alleged plan to bomb a public gathering of the exiled opposition group Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK) by an Iranian diplomat at the embassy in Austria seems implausible and in line with a so-called false flag operation.
Regardless, though, of who planned the attack, the notion that opposing sides of Iranian politics might be using the heart of the West to fight their battles, should be of great concern to the free world.
Swedish law enforcement officials recently arrested an Iraqi journalist on suspicions that he was spying on Arab separatists in Stockholm for Tehran. A leader of the same group was murdered in the Netherlands in late 2017 by assassins hired by the Iranian regime, according to Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok.
Meanwhile, domestic forces inside Iran are doing little to alter perceptions of their thuggery by continuing to arrest foreign nationals with regularity.
In the United Kingdom, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt – a lone voice of clarity as the country fumbles through the Brexit debacle – has made two defiant stands on Iranian aggression.
In the high-profile case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, he’s made the young mother’s three-year imprisonment on bogus national security charges a priority, taking the extraordinary measure of giving the dual national diplomatic protections.
Hunt has also signaled his support for staff members of the BBC Persian who have gone public with their complaints over years of systematic harassment by the Iranian authorities on the employees of the broadcaster and their families in Iran who have been threatened, arrested and blocked from doing financial transactions.
Both the U.K. and E.U. have recently extended sanctions on Iran for human rights violations ranging from Iran’s arrests of journalists and civil rights activists, excessive use of capital punishment, false imprisonment and the use of technology to repress Iranian society.
There is growing consensus within the West about the need to block the travel and finances of Iranian regime officials and their families, a move the U.S. and European allies have discussed, but never implemented.
If the Trump administration is serious about putting an end to Tehran’s “malign activity,” it should work with our allies to develop a realistic plan to do so. A multinational approach is the best way to get Iran to fall in line, but it will only happen with Europe and the United States operating from the same playbook.