by Eldar Mamedov
As the US issued its ultimatum to the EU on “fixing” the nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action or JCPOA), the European Parliament (EP) hosted Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs and National Security Committee of the Iranian parliament. Boroujerdi addressed the Foreign Affairs committee of the EP on January 23. The next day, together with his delegation, he engaged in detailed discussions with European counterparts on such topics of mutual interest as counter-terrorism, climate change, migration, and trade.
Although the discussion in the committee was at times tough, even the critical MEPs voiced their support for the JCPOA as it stands. They basically backed the consensus view of the EU that other issues of concern, such as Iran’s ballistic missiles program and regional policies must not be linked to the implementation by all sides of their JCPOA-related commitments. The suggestions of the EU3—France, Germany and Great Britain—that these issues could nevertheless be brought up to ensure that the US remains within the JCPOA were not reflected in the discussion.
After clearing away the point on the JCPOA, MEPs then challenged Boroujerdi on the missiles. As other Iranian officials have done, he conveyed Tehran’s position that the missiles program is an existential element of Iranian deterrence against external threats and not a violation of the UN Security Council resolution 2231 dealing with the subject. Given the overwhelming advantage that Iran’s regional foes,such as Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Israel have over Iran in terms of conventional weapons, no unilateral concessions from Iran are possible on this point. Significantly, this position is no different from the one voiced by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. This confirms that the missile issue is not one of “moderates versus hardliners” in Iran but a consolidated national position, and the only realistic way to address it is to discuss it within a broader regional context.
At the same time, the Iranian delegation was exposed to the depth of the European commitment to the right of Israel to exist securely. As the debate in the committee showed, it cannot be reduced to the activity of the pro-Israel lobby alone. Given the legacy of the Holocaust, this commitment is deeply ingrained in European political and social culture, across the political spectrum. Were Iran to reduce its provocative anti-Israeli rhetoric, explicitly distance itself from any form of Holocaust denial, and eschew “death to Israel” slogan would go a long way toward normalizing the perception of the Islamic Republic in Europe. What Iran gains with this kind of rhetoric in the Arab world, to which most of it is directed, it loses in terms of its image and prestige in Europe.
Boroujerdi’s visit, however, was not focused solely on traditional hard security-related issues, and herein lies its added value. Migration from the war-torn zones, for example, has evolved into one of the major concerns of the European public. Yet little is known in Europe of the scale of the Iranian effort in hosting the Afghan refugees and providing them with education, healthcare, and a path to integration into Iranian society. Although the EU has modestly increased its financial assistance to Iran in this regard, the Iranians rightly argue that it is in the European interest to do more: the lack of proper conditions in Iran would increase the risk of illegal migration and radicalization, both of which would affect European security as well.
Another issue that was discussed was the effects of climate change and environmental protection. The scarcity of water is a strategic threat for Iran. Less precipitation and inadequate water management mean that Iran is literally drying up fast. The tragic fate of Lake Urmiye in the north of the country is an evidence of this. Its shrinking provokes salt storms that affect nearby populations, including in Tabriz, a major city.
Sand storms pose another challenge, especially for Iran’s western provinces. The air pollution in cities like Ahwaz has reached truly alarming proportions. Since sand storms mostly originate in neighboring countries, tackling them would require regional cooperation.
Notably, Iranians mentioned this area as one in which cooperation with Saudi Arabia would be both desirable and necessary, since partly those storms originate in Saudi territory bordering Iraq. The EU and Iran will shortly sign a memorandum of understanding on environment and climate change, along ,with a road map and concrete projects to tackle these issues. This would be one area where the EU could put its regional approach to the Middle East in practice.
Ultimately, the real significance of Boroujerdi’s visit to Brussels was twofold. First, in its scope and scale, the visit establishes the most ambitious precedent of Europeans engaging directly with a representative of the conservative principlist faction of the Iranian political spectrum whose worldview is probably the closest to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Beyond ample disagreements on different subjects, no sustainable progress in EU-Iran relations is feasible without having this part of the Iranian establishment on board. The EU should also bear in mind that, contrary to the narrative of a regime on its last legs, the principlists still enjoy the support of a significant portion of the Iranian population. Conversely, the meeting also served to enlarge the pro-engagement constituency on the EU side beyond its traditional centre-left core.
Second, the timing of the meeting in the EP was extremely useful in terms of intra-European politics. At a time when some EU member states show dangerous signs of willingness to appease Trump over the JCPOA, many senior MEPs sent a clear message that they view the incipient engagement with Iran as in European interest. The diversity of views expressed on the EU side should encourage the non-E3 EU nations with a strong track record of engaging Iran, such as Italy or Sweden, to step up their game.
This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament. Photo: Alaeddin Boroujerdi.