The Road to Tehran Runs Through Europe
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Editor's Desk

Mitchell Belfer

The Road to Tehran Runs Through Europe

Three months since withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and the United States has begun to reimpose heavy sanctions on Iran. To the dismay of many in Europe, especially in Brussels, France, Germany and the UK, President Trump announced that it will be impossible for companies, and countries, to maintain economic relations with both the US and Iran—they have to choose. Armies of lawyers have sprung into action. They are exploring legal loopholes, waivers, constructing subsidiaries, opening ghost accounts, and looking for other mechanisms to protect their investments in Iran. This is near-sighted and it is irresponsible. 

An air of duplicity surrounds European calls for continued engagement with the Islamic Republic. It is worrying. The glaring crimes committed by Tehran beyond its borders — throughout the Middle East and in Europe — are being white-washed. This year alone Tehran ordered the bombing of an Iranian opposition demonstration in Paris (it was, fortunately, interdicted by Belgian security ‘just in time’) and assassinated an Iranian dissident in Amsterdam. Its agents were caught ‘acquiring Jewish targets’ across Berlin and were arrested scoping-out dissident venues in Albania. Sadly, these episodes are relegated to footnotes. Europe’s business relations to Iran are, apparently, more important than the principles it purports to represent in global politics. 

In 2013, when negotiations began, it was argued that the JCPOA would enrich, liberalise and ultimately empower Iran’s middle class—and they would temper Iran’s regional and international behaviour. This was a naive expectation. Not only has sanctions relief not trickled down to ordinary Iranian citizens and has not sparked a wave of economic or political liberalisation, it has actually increased domestic repression and paramilitary operations abroad. The only Iranian benefactor of the JCPOA is also the most pronounced of Iran’s instruments of oppression—the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC). Mohammad Ali Jafari, the reclusive leader of the Guards, has been spending more money on the Basij militia (internal repression) and the Al Quds Force (international operations) than at any other time in the Islamic Republic’s history. That money is coming from sanctions relief and the new, especially European, business [ad]ventures. Some Europeans are getting very rich in Iran. As is the IRGC. Ordinary Iranians remain poor. 

Still, many are afraid of simply scuppering the JCPOA. They ask why abandon an agreement — any agreement — that stops Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Certainly, nuclear proliferation must, at all costs, be avoided. However, this deal is not a silver bullet. A new, more comprehensive agreement needs to be negotiated. 

Here’s why: 

First—the deal was flawed from the beginning. It did not seek to prevent Iran’s nuclearisation only to prolong its ‘break out’ period. In theory, Tehran would have its nuclear ambitions governed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and if it were to violate the terms of the agreement, the international community would know — but not be able to do much about it. In practice, Iran suspended aspects of its nuclear programme in pursuit of other aspects. So, at present,  it may not be enriching uranium but it is still researching centrifuges and, importantly, delivery systems. Iran retains the Middle East’s largest and most diverse missile arsenal. The money pouring into the Islamic Republic is enhancing that capability. The Soumar cruise missile (2500 km range), the Sejjil MRBM (2000 km range) and the Shahab 3 MRBM (2000 km range) are all capable of carrying a nuclear, biological or chemical weapon and were operationalised since the JCPOA went into effect. Any nuclear deal that does not include ballistics (re: delivery systems) is dangerously incomplete. 

Second—Iran actively works against Europe’s international interests. Developing business relations with Tehran while containing it is counterintuitive. In Afghanistan, NATO is harassed and European and US soldiers are killed by a Taliban in alignment with Iran. The weapons they use and the targets they select are, partially, provided by the IRGC who are equally interested in the retreat of NATO from the region. Together with Russia and Al Assad, Iran is culpable in ethnically cleansing Syria of Sunni Arabs—and sending them into Europe as refugees. It retains 43 militias in Iraq and props-up the Al Assad regime to consolidate a land-corridor that links Iran to the Mediterranean Sea. From the wars in Iraq, Syria, Yemen to the war on drugs (re: Hezbollah is one of the world’s most prolific drug smugglers) and terrorism — hosting, until very recently, key Al Qaeda members including Hamza Bin Laden — Iran has taken a contrary position to the EU and NATO. 

Third—Iran is engaged in proxy wars with many of the EU’s closest international allies. It is fighting: 1. Morocco (through the Polisario), 2. Saudi Arabia (through Hezbollah of the Hejaz), 3. Bahrain (through Saraya Al Ashtar and Hezbollah et al), 4. the UAE (through Hezbollah) and 5. Israel (through Hezbollah, Hamas and the PIJ). Since the Iranian takeover of Iraq, Tehran has added the country’s Kurds to its hit-list as it works at undermining Erbil’s autonomy. In its quest for regional hegemony and the proliferation of its revolutionary ideology, Tehran developed a militia-superstructure that undermines stability in key, strategic areas and is directly responsible to the deteriorating security situation in the wider Middle East. 

Finally—history matters. For 444 days, starting from 04 November 1979, Iran held 52 [after a token release of 16 hostages] US diplomatic personnel hostage. They were exposed to a terrifying ordeal. Threatened with death, taunted and humiliated, the hostages were at the mercy of the Revolutionary Guard. From then until now, irrespective of Obama’s grand overtures, financial incentives or  wholesale diplomatic rehabilitation, the country has never apologised or attempted to make amends for its past crimes. Instead, it has promoted and empowered those that made their careers on the backs of that episode. They can now be found on Rouhani’s negotiating teams, in the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Defence, they are the influential members of the theocracy and they are Iran’s international representatives. The Obama Administration, notably John Kerry, was willing to overlook 1979. For a country like Iran, whose central ideological pillar is laden with history, ignoring the past to move into the future, is perceived as a weakness. Iran knows what it did and what it does. It is time for others to remember as well and to judge Iran accordingly. 


Additional US sanctions against Iran are in the works and it is crunch-time for Brussels. Either Europe can scupper the JCPOA and stand with the US to interrupt the flow of money that has empowered the IRGC, or it can interrupt the transatlantic relationship. Some, like Macron and Merkel, have adopted a narrative that sees more value in limiting the EU-US relationship in favour of a more robust EU global strategy—including with Tehran. This would be a tragic mistake. On the other side of the world, South Korea and Japan have already scaled back and are working to end their importation of Iranian oil and sever their trade relations to Tehran. They value their relationship to Washington more. It is time for Europe to follow suit.


Whatever reservations European leaders may harbour about Donald Trump, the President does not lead a weekly, collective, chant calling for the death of Iran. Contrarily, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei — rabidly anti-American since, at least, 1958 — only refers to the US as the ‘Great Satan’ and routinely calls for its death and destruction. Until Iran’s rhetoric and its geopolitical and ideological ambitions are neatly knotted empowering it is reckless. If the EU and US further drift because of a few, narrow, European commercial interests, Iran will have done what even the USSR could not and build an insurmountable hurdle across the Atlantic.

2020 - Volume 14 Issue 2