As Iranians protested the country’s sputtering economy, rampant corruption and rising food and fuel prices, European leaders faced a dilemma on how to respond.
They, along with the European Union itself, chose caution and restraint, taking into consideration the huge economic deals they have at stake with Tehran. European officials were denounced by critics who accused them of being more concerned with preserving the Iran nuclear deal than with condemning Tehran’s crackdown against protesters.
There were more than 20 deaths and 1,000 arrests during the nationwide protests, which erupted in Mashhad, Iran’s second-largest city, on December 28.
EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini took six days to comment on the protests before issuing a bland statement. “In the spirit of openness and respect that is at the root of our relationship, we expect all concerned to refrain from violence and to guarantee freedom of expression,” she said.
UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson issued a single Tweet, saying only that he was “watching events with concern.” German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel also responded cautiously, saying: “We appeal to the Iranian government to respect the rights of the demonstrators to assemble and to peacefully raise their voices.”
“These utterings from the heavyweights in EU foreign policy circles can be seen as accurately reflecting the dilemma EU members are in due to the current disturbances in Iran,” Magnus Norell, an adjunct scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in a posting on the group’s website.
Writing for the institute’s Fikra Forum, an Arabic-English online community that aims to connect Arab reformers with US policymakers, Norell said the European Union was “pussyfooting on Iran.”
“Having invested a considerate amount of diplomatic capital in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) two years ago and since then selling goods to Iran worth $10 billion in 2016 alone, as well as trying to get over the shock of having Donald Trump as the president upsetting policy conventions across the globe, the last thing the EU needs now is another potential disruption in their backyard in the Middle East,” he added.
The foreign ministers of Iran, France, Germany and the United Kingdom met in Brussels on January 11, focusing on JCPOA amid signs that US President Donald Trump would not recertify the deal.
The protests in Iran were not explicitly mentioned, with Mogherini saying: “Unity is essential to preserve a deal that is working, that is making the world safer, that is preventing a nuclear arms race in the region.”
Unsurprisingly, Trump has been outspoken in his criticism of the Iran government and gave the strongest indication that he would choose not to recertify the Iran nuclear deal.
“Iran is failing at every level despite the terrible deal made with them by the Obama administration. The great Iranian people have been repressed for many years. They are hungry for food & for freedom. Along with human rights, the wealth of Iran is being looted. TIME FOR CHANGE!” Trump tweeted January 1.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson not only spoke out forcefully in support of the protests and criticised Europe’s relative silence on the issue.
“We’re disappointed that the European Union has not taken a more definitive stance in supporting those voices in the country that are calling for reform,” he said.
Some analysts also criticised Europe’s lack of response to the protests. “Europe’s response to the regime’s violent suppression of protests after the stolen elections of 2009 was firm. The EU should send the same message today,” said US journalist Eli Lake in an opinion piece carried by Bloomberg News.
In Britain, the main opposition Labour Party faced major criticism for its silence on the issue. While Johnson’s statement was criticised as perfunctory, opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has made numerous paid appearances on Iran’s state-owned Press TV, remained silent.
Seeking to defend Corbyn, UK Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry argued for “extreme caution” on Iran.
“Our approach now is one of extreme caution when it comes to Iran and a recognition that the society in Iran is an immensely complex one and seemingly contradictory,” she told the BBC’s Political Thinking podcast.
“So we take a cautious approach in Iran and we don’t want to leap to judgment and say: ‘Well, we don’t like the regime in Iran, these people are against it, they must be the guy in white hats.’”
However, this is a policy that Labour has failed to abide by on other complex issues in the Middle East, from criticising the government’s sanction of arms to Saudi Arabia to issues surrounding human rights abuse in Egypt and Bahrain.
Despite criticisms, analysts said outspoken Western condemnation of the Iranian regime and outpourings of support for the protesters could backfire.
“The fact that we are actually making statements that we think are in favour of the Iranian people, they are hurting them more than anything,” Iranian-American analyst Holly Dagres told CNN.
Tehran has sought to use foreign criticism of it and statements supporting the protesters as evidence that outside forces are behind the recent unrest.
“The enemy is waiting for an opportunity, for a flaw, through which they can enter. Look at these events over the last few days. All those who are against the Islamic Republic… they have all joined forces to create problems for the Islamic Republic,” Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted that “infiltrators” would not be allowed to “sabotage” Iran through violence and destruction.
With the European Union choosing to focus on saving the JCPOA and Trump choosing to reluctantly extend the nuclear deal, the Iranians who risked their lives to take to the streets found their protests brushed aside by Europe’s leaders.
Mahmud el-Shafey is an Arab Weekly correspondent in London.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.