European leaders’ response to Iran protests raises questions

A woman chants slogans during a protest against the visit of Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif outside the European Union Council in Brussels

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.