by Eldar Mamedov
In his inauguration speech, President Donald Trump vowed to eradicate “radical Islamic terrorism” from the “face of earth.” His top lieutenants have identified the targets of this effort. Rex Tillerson, in his confirmation testimony for secretary of state, lumped together the so-called Islamic State (ISIS or IS), al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), and “some elements within Iran”—even though Shia Iran is bitterly opposed to the ultra-Salafist IS and al-Qaeda and, to a lesser degree, the Sunni fundamentalist MB.
Trump’s inner circle – his ideologue-in-chief Steve Bannon and National Security Adviser Michael Flynn – seem to have an equally un-discerning view. As Bannon explained, addressing an audience in 2014, “I believe you should take a very, very, very aggressive stance against radical Islam … If you look back at the long history of the Judeo-Christian West struggle against Islam, I believe that our forefathers kept their stance, and I think they did the right thing. I think they kept it out of the world, whether it was at Vienna, or Tours, or other places.”
Yet, apart from such sweeping “clash of civilizations”-type assertions, this ambitious project looks remarkably scant on details. Although Bannon, for example, is very hostile to Saudi Arabia, he has never made his views on Iran known, nor is he on the record showing any understanding of the differences between Sunni and Shia. Flynn is known for his obsessive Iranophobia. And James Mattis, the Defence Secretary sometimes seen as a potentially moderating influence in the Trump cabinet, went as far as to suggest that Iran and IS may somehow be in cahoots.
Bannon and Flynn´s Islamophobia resonates strongly with the similar-minded populist nationalist parties in Europe, for whom this is one key aspect of their revolt against the “globalist elite”. But on Iran, the views seem to be diverging.
The far right’s most powerful European representative is Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French National Front and, according to the polls, one of the leading contenders for the presidency in the elections in May 2017. In her role as a member of the European Parliament (EP), Le Pen has expressed some remarkably moderate views about Iran. For example, she tabled a number of amendments to the opinion of the EP’s International Trade Committee on the EU-Iran relations after the nuclear agreement.
One of those amendments removed the original language on Iran’s “self-chosen isolation”—drafted by Marietje Schaake, a Dutch liberal known for her strong criticisms of Iran’s human rights record and regional policies—and replaced it with a statement that the nuclear agreement “makes it possible for European countries to cooperate fully with Iran, to the benefit of all.” Another amendment deplores “the EU interference in Iran’s internal affairs” and reaffirms its right “to make sovereign choices.” In the same vein, she also rejects the notion that the EU has to use its economic leverage on Iran to push for human rights agenda, warning that such an approach could be perceived as “an imposition of Western values and cultural colonization.” In yet another clause, in reference to the existing US sanctions against Iran, Le Pen urges EU member states and the Commission to defend EU companies against the “extraterritorial applications of US law.”
None of these amendments was adopted, since there is an unwritten agreement between the two largest groups in the EP—the center-right Christian Democrats and centre-left Social Democrats—not to vote for amendments tabled by members of the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF), the far-right group of which Le Pen’s National Front is a founding member. Instead, at a later stage the EP overwhelmingly adopted the moderate and pragmatic report on EU-Iran relations drafted by the British Labour MEP Richard Howitt, a member of the Social Democratic group.
Another far-right member of the EP, Udo Voigt from the German neo-Nazi National Democratic Party, sits on the EP delegation for relations with Iran.
Several reasons might explain the European far right’s apparent fondness for Iran. First, it should be seen as part of a populist repudiation of the “liberal globalist elite,” with its notions of universal human rights and free markets. Like Vladimir Putin´s Russia with its emphasis on “traditional values,” Iran with its system of governance and defiant foreign policy is seen as a perfect embodiment of a challenge to this “elite,” and thus worthy of support. Some European extremists adore the Iranian system precisely for the same reasons that liberals abhor it, such as the widespread use of the death penalty, which they dream of bringing back to Europe.
Second, supporting Iran can be seen as a poke in the eyes of the continental elites enjoying too cozy relations with the Gulf monarchies, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which the European political class, intelligence services, and general public increasingly acknowledge as sponsors of Wahhabi extremism and blame for terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels.
In the end, however, the far right’s voting record in the EP suggests that for them Iran is more of an instrumental issue rather than a matter of firm convictions. For example, despite all the superficially Iran-friendly rhetoric, most members of the ENF either abstained or voted against the Howitt report (Le Pen herself abstained). Likewise, despite all the Saudi-bashing, Le Pen and two thirds of the ENF voted against the amendment calling on the EU to introduce an arms embargo against Saudi Arabia in the framework of the EP resolution on the humanitarian situation in Yemen adopted in February 2016.
This suggests that the European far right parties are most unlikely to play Iran’s representatives in a nascent transatlantic populist “international.” It seems far likelier that, if the European far right ever reaches the pinnacle of power in an important European country, it will not allow the divergent views on Iran to stand in the way of a common Islamophobic agenda with the likes of Bannon and Flynn, even at the cost of wrecking the nuclear deal. Which is another reason to avoid such a scenario at all costs.
This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament. Photo of Marine Le Pen by Claude Truong-Ngoc via Wikimedia Commons.