by Eldar Mamedov
When the protests erupted in Iran during the West’s holiday season, not a few folks hoped that the US and the EU would bridge their recent differences over the nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) and unite in support of the Iranian people fighting the “brutal theocracy.” These hopes, however, were comprehensively dashed. If anything, the way both sides read the protests may have deepened the transatlantic divide over Iran.
As the ill-conceived debate on Iran convened at the United Nations Security Council by US Ambassador Nikki Haley has shown, European allies refused to back the American line, which essentially boils down to regime change in Iran. Swedish foreign minister Margot Wallstrom said that, although the loss of human lives was unacceptable, the UNSC was not the right venue to discuss events in Iran, since they did not threaten world peace and security. French President Emmanuel Macron warned against the demonization of Iran, with an explicit reference to the role played in this effort by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini took a prudent pause before reacting. When she did, her statement struck the right tone: deeming the loss of life inexcusable, reaffirming the freedom of expression, and calling on all concerned to act with restraint. Of course, as the debate in the European Parliament (EP) on January 18 demonstrated, there are also voices in the EU who echo the American position. But such voices are not dominant in the EU, including in the EP: unlike the US Congress, the EP sensibly has avoided adopting a resolution on the protests, which would have most likely done more harm than help.
Such reluctance stems not from the supposed European tendency to appease bad regimes but from a more sophisticated understanding of Iranian realities as a result of post-JCPOA engagement. Contrary to the worn-out accusations of American neoconservatives and their echo chamber in Europe, the EU’s real track record on human rights in Iran, limited as it is, has been more successful than the US.
This is due mostly to two things that the EU delivers and the US under the presidency of Donald Trump does not: faithful implementation of the JCPOA and recognition of Iran as a legitimate actor in the Middle East. This has generated a level of trust that enabled discussions on human rights, alongside other issues. So, human rights were included as part of the High Level Political Dialogue between the EU and Iran, the last round of which took place in Brussels in November 2017.
Recently, the Iranian parliament has passed an amendment to the law against drug trafficking, which dramatically raises the bar for the application of death penalty. It is significant that the law has passed the muster of the Guardians’ Council. Sadeq Larijani, the head of the Iranian judiciary, has issued an order to the Iranian judges to rescind death sentences that do not satisfy the requirements of the amended law. When fully implemented, this law would save the lives of around 4,000 people currently on death row for minor drug-related crimes. Considering that around 80% of executions in Iran are drug-related, the implementation of the law would drastically reduce the application of the death penalty.
The credit for these changes goes, first and foremost, to the Iranian activists who campaigned for them for years, and the parliamentarians who amended the law. But the EU has also long been vocal on the issue, at the level of the Mogherini-led European External Action Service (EEAS), member states, and the European Parliament. The dialogue on human rights is difficult and disagreements will persist. But since it considers the EU a reliable actor, Tehran listens to Brussels.
By contrast, the US cannot claim credit for any single tangible improvement of human rights in Iran. On the death penalty, for example, it was always silent—for the obvious reason that the US is among the very few developed nations that keep applying capital punishment. Instead, Washington has offered a lot of sound and fury during the protests, and precious little in terms of concrete suggestions on how to address the human rights concerns in Iran. The specific measures it has offered tend to be counter-productive.
For example, the US has put a number of Iranian individuals on the sanctions list over the protests, including Sadeq Larijani. Yet his very cooperation as the chief of the judiciary is crucial to get any human-rights-related improvements in place. Ill-defined talk of spreading a “freedom agenda” to Iran would only trigger a strong nationalist reaction in Iran. So do foolish, immature ideas like assassinating the commander of the Al-Quds force of the Revolutionary Guards Qassem Soleimani, uttered at a recent meeting of the neoconservative Hudson Institute, whose views on Iran are close to those of the administration.
Not only does Trump´s hollow rhetoric do nothing to improve the human rights of the Iranians, it also worsens the situation of the American citizens currently under arrest in Iran, such as Siamak and Baquer Namazi. One of the benefits of the EU re-engagement with Iran is that UK Foreign Minister Boris Johnson is able to travel to Tehran to raise the issue of the UK-Iranian dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliff, under arrest since 2016. Yet Washington’s persistent refusal to engage with Iran leaves those Americans on their own. If “America First” means putting the rights and interests of American citizens first, then certainly Trump´s policy on Iran qualifies as an abject failure.
Evidence suggests that the most effective way to promote human rights in Iran is to engage Iran in a critical but constructive dialogue. This is what the EU has been doing since the conclusion of the nuclear deal. It has every reason to persevere in this path. For once, America would act wise if it accepted European leadership on this issue, instead of insisting on the same failed hostile policies against Iran.
This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament. Photo: Sadeq Larijani.