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Saeed Ghasseminejad is a senior advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow at the FDD.
One might have thought that a troika of destabilizing forces — the continued rights abuses and unjust detention of Iranian protestors, increased military support for Russia and a fast-evolving nuclear program — would have been sufficient to disabuse Europe of maintaining its Iran policy.
But one would be mistaken.
Despite issuing a string of penalties that seemingly bridge the transatlantic sanctions gap when it comes to Tehran, over the past five months, the Council of the European Union has retained an outdated nuclear accord — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — as the centerpiece of its policy. And its commitment to this accord runs so deep that even upon returning from Kyiv this February, High Representative Josep Borrell opted to stress the importance of that 2015 agreement, exclaiming that critics “don’t value enough” the threat a nuclear Iran could pose.
The problem? Borrell’s solution doesn’t either.
To date, Iran has made qualitative advances in its nuclear program, including the testing and deployment of more advanced centrifuges, enrichment of uranium to 60 percent purity and the production of uranium metal using highly enriched uranium. And to make matters worse, the U.N. nuclear watchdog reported that as of late January, Tehran has enough fissile material “for several nuclear weapons.”
Still, undeterred by this escalation, last summer, Borrell launched a new diplomatic offensive containing additional sweeteners. However, Tehran’s ultra-hardline government was at best intransigent and remains uncommitted to serious compromise.
Nearly every pulled punch, half measure, or word over deed from Europe since then can be best explained by its dogged attachment to the JCPOA and inability to form an Iran policy beyond it.
For example, despite a rising tide of calls from EU parliamentarians to proscribe Tehran’s chief instrument of terror — the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) — as a terrorist organization, the Council is only mulling whether to extend sanctions to include select IRGC branches and elements of Iran’s defense-industrial base. And this comes as IRGC generals mock the EU, calling them “dwarves” who should “ask their American friends what the cost of confrontation with the Revolutionary Guards was and is.”
A more prominent example of this problem lies in the EU’s inability to see Iran’s evolving revolutionary movement on the ground as a credible alternative to engagement with the regime.
Since December 2017, Iran has seen at least three waves of widespread nationwide protests, with smaller bursts of demonstrations in between. To date, the largest and most resilient iteration of these erupted after the killing of a 22-year-old woman last September. And unlike the mass protests in 2009 and 1999, these demonstrations are independent of any faction and seek wholesale change of the system.
The fuel for these ongoing protests has been the regime’s inability and unwillingness to reform itself over the past four decades, as well as its failure to prioritize the public good in matters of governance. They are also becoming more demographically and geographically diverse, organized and forceful than in the past — while also being met with increasing violence from the state.
In addition to treating women as second-class citizens and using institutional violence to enforce a Khomeinist interpretation of Islamic law, decades of two-digit inflation and slow growth, coupled with a real GDP per capita that is lower than when the regime first took power, is turning more citizens into protestors every day. And the participation of the urban and rural poor, whom the Islamic Republic once gambled would save their system, has been particularly noteworthy.
Ignoring these forces — which have manifested themselves more and more in boom-and-bust cycles, triggered by shocks that vary from the regime’s security policy missteps to economic, social, and even environmental issues — means that no agreement with the Islamic Republic will bring about the stability that Europe seeks in order to dampen threats and bring long-term market access.
For instance, in 2021, the EU had €113 billion in trade with Persian Gulf countries. Despite having significant oil and gas reserves, however, Tehran’s regional aggression threatens the safe transfer of energy resources to Europe, as the regime has shown a willingness to target energy infrastructure, as well as attack and take oil tankers hostage time and again.
Furthermore, Tehran’s security policy is a major contributor to the region’s destabilization. Its support for a wide array of terror groups has caused military conflicts and civil wars, which have, in turn, spurred mass migration from the Middle East to the Continent, creating socioeconomic challenges for European welfare states — as well as conditions ripe for both fueling a populist backlash and radicalizing their Muslim and immigrant communities.
But now, Tehran’s threat radius is growing in never-before-seen ways. The Islamic Republic’s drone proliferation to Russia keeps President Vladimir Putin’s war machine in business with cheaper long-range strike systems, which are being employed against critical infrastructure in Ukraine. Iran’s willingness to support Russia shows not only its brazen lack of adherence to U.N. prohibitions, but the confidence of its leadership in being able to weather any European response.
In this regard, the country’s transfer of ballistic missiles to Russia still remains a serious possibility, and this wouldn’t be the first time Tehran pressured Europe by using its missile program either. Nearly half a decade ago, an IRGC general went so far as to threaten to extend ballistic missile ranges beyond a self-imposed cap of 2,000 kilometers if Europe ever took a more confrontational approach.
Thus, the EU needs to take off its handcuffs and blinders.
And that means using a tool built into the JCPOA called “Snapback,” which would collapse the deal through a U.N. process that restores older multilateral monitoring mechanisms and prohibitions on the Islamic Republic. Reaching for such a tool before it expires in 2025 would signal to Iran that Europe is done accepting escalation and will be in the business of holding Tehran to account.
Absent such a reset, however, sporadic moves like sanctions against human rights abusers or Iranian entities supplying Russia with drones will be drowned out by the potential deluge of sanctions relief, should the nuclear deal be restored.
If ever there was a time to test Europe’s commitment to countering the issues it deems to be threats and standing-up for the values it espouses, it’s now.