by Eldar Mamedov
The first Western leader to congratulate Hassan Rouhani on his re-election as Iran’s president on May 19 was the EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy Federica Mogherini. It is clearly an indicator of the importance the EU attaches to relations with Iran. Also remarkable is Mogherini’s message lauding Iranians for “passionately taking part in the political life of their country.” With so much skepticism about the nature of the Iranian elections in the West, such an acknowledgement from a senior Western politician is truly refreshing and shows that Mogherini “gets it.”
The fact that 70% of Iranian voters turned out to hand a decisive victory to a moderate candidate is surely all the more significant in the regional context where Turkey accelerates its slide towards authoritarianism and Persian Gulf Arab monarchies don’t hold meaningful elections at all. And despite all the speculation about the Supreme Leader favoring Rouhani’s conservative rival, Ebrahim Raeisi, and even the possibility of electoral fraud, all Ayatollah Khamenei did was to thank the Iranians for the high rate of participation. Iran has shown itself to be a stable country in a turbulent region.
Apart from that, there are several key takeaways for the EU from these elections.
First, the EU strategy towards Iran works. Although the re-election of Hassan Rouhani is primarily a result of Iran’s internal dynamics, external factors also helped to shape this outcome. In contrast to the US, which has viewed the nuclear agreement narrowly through a non-proliferation and arms control lens, the EU viewed it as a gateway to broader re-engagement with Iran on a range of bilateral and regional issues. Such a strategy has rewarded the Iranian moderates: EU-Iran trade increased 78% in the year after the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and the country’s overall international isolation has eased. Much of this is still a work in progress, especially on the economic front, but the trajectory is encouraging, and the Iranian voters have clearly backed it.
The re-election of Rouhani, in this light, offers an opportunity to consolidate a virtuous circle in the EU-Iran relations: the JCPOA has helped the moderates to strengthen their position, which has led to a deepening EU engagement that, in turn, will help transform the country over the long term into a freer and more prosperous place. The EU thus should double down on its current strategy.
Second, Rouhani’s victory gives the EU more ammunition to oppose the moves in the US to undermine the JCPOA. The EU already used its influence to defer the bill in Congress on more sanctions over ballistic missiles tests until after the elections in Iran. The EU can now argue, with good evidence, that less rather than more hard-line policies help bring positive change in Iran. At the same time, should Washington move to undermine the deal beyond the bellicose rhetoric, the EU should strongly oppose any such moves with all the diplomatic and economic means at its disposal. This includes taking concrete actions to protect its companies operating or planning to operate in Iran against the extra-territorial application of the US sanctions.
Third, the re-election of Rouhani and the rejection of populism will allow Iran to redouble its efforts on economic reform to make the country more attractive to foreign investment. Crucial in this regard are efforts to jumpstart membership negotiations in the World Trade Organization (WTO) and progress in the implementation of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) recommendations, to which Iran’s government has committed itself. The EU supports Iran’s WTO bid and offered Tehran technical assistance in meeting the FATF requirements in areas like preventing money laundering and financing of terrorism. This cooperation can now be expected to deepen.
Fourth, opportunities to engage Iran in talks on regional security in the Middle East will be enhanced. There are profound differences on Syria: although the EU in its recently unveiled new strategy has reaffirmed its goal of political transition, Iran is still staunchly committed to the survival of the Assad regime. Although the EU will not convince Iran to give up on Assad, it could at least try to persuade Iranians to use their influence to rein in the Assad regime’s worst atrocities. Iranians are painfully aware that their country loses a great deal in soft power because of its association with such a brutal regime. For its part, the EU should reassure Iranians that it would not endorse a rabidly anti-Iranian, pro-Saudi, Salafist regime in Syria as an alternative to Assad. Dialogue on other crises, such as Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan, should prove to be easier.
Fifth, Rouhani’s victory in combination with a relatively friendly parliament should give new impetus to the human rights agenda. Rouhani himself recognized the importance of the issue in an unusually bold way during his campaign. Now he should demonstrate that it was more than just a ploy to mobilize his supporters. This creates an opportunity to reinvigorate the EU-Iran human rights dialogue. The moves in the Iranian parliament to reduce the application of death penalty in drug-related cases (currently around 80% of all executions) are a step in the right direction. The long-overdue release of the unjustly arrested EU-Iranian double nationals must follow. Iran will not be able to build a healthy, trust-based relationship with the EU if this problem persists.
Finally, it is now time to open an EU delegation in Tehran. This issue has been on the agenda ever since the conclusion of the JCPOA, but it is still not resolved. The ball is in the Iranian court. Some conservative officials fear that such a EU office would be used for “infiltration” purposes. But with 22 embassies of the EU member states already present in Tehran, fears of an additional “infiltration” by a EU delegation are misplaced. Other Iranian officials reckon that opening it would be a logical next step in EU-Iran engagement. Given the necessity to manage increasingly intense and complex EU-Iran relations, the EU delegation is a practical, not an ideological, matter. Now that the presidential elections in Iran are out of the way, it is high time to move on this dossier.
Hassan Rouhani’s re-election offers an opportunity to pursue the path of engagement, diplomacy, and multilateralism in a highly volatile and unstable global and regional context. It is incumbent on both the EU and Iran to seize it.
Photo: Federica Mogherini greets Hassan Rouhani (courtesy federicamogherini.net).
This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament.