The EU's policy (or lack thereof) on Iran

Article published on July 9, 2003
community published
Article published on July 9, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Is Europe mired in hypocrisy as it turns a blind eye to the human rights violations in Iran?

In “Power and Weakness,” Robert Kagan depicts Europe as inhabiting a post-historical world, from which it comfortably promotes a multilateral foreign-policy making structure that consists largely of cooperation through international treaties such as the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court, the anti-personnel land mine treaty and the Kyoto Protocol, not to mention the institutions of the United Nations. Is this attitude a product of virtue or circumstance, Kagan ripely asks?

Kagan’s question is one that concerns the leaders of Europe, but what of its citizens? Behind the Iraq peace demonstrations, as well as Chirac’s ceaseless grandstanding, lurks the question: were the millions that took to the streets in fact more anti-American than pro-Iraqi or pro-peace? The same suspicion creeps up to ask, amid the ghostly silence, where are the crowds crying out on behalf of the people in Iran? Can it be that the sovereignty of a cruel, dictatorial state be more holy than the civil and human rights of almost 70 million Iranians?

So what can Europe do?

With the failure of Khatami, these students and their middle class supporters lack a clear leader. President Khatami and his brother, the leaders of the Reform Party, though defending the right to protest, have simultaneously sought to belittle the protestors. The President, speaking out only on the eighth day of protests, said “If those who are opposed to the system are only some 200, 500 or 1000 people who take advantage of the students’ problems, then we are proud of ourselves that we are so strong.” Scarily enough, his creative “re-interpretation” of events (the government later admitted to arresting over 4000 people) sounds a lot like the tactics the regime itself so often employs – the purposeful misconstruing of events, robbing Iranians of agency by saying that they are merely the pawns of outside forces, usually Americans. Likewise, his brother, condemned not only the vigilantes as “rogues,” but also protestors who chanted insulting slogans at the regime’s leaders.

So what can Europe do? First, take a stand. Whether silent for reasons of economic opportunism or mere provincialism – after these past seven years, can we truly continue to believe in the reformist capabilities of Khatami within this theocracy? - Europe and the individual states that comprise her Union could stand, on this occasion at least, to take a lesson from the man they all too often snub their noses at: President Bush. On June 18, he publicly spoke to “those courageous souls who speak out for freedom in Iran” and declared that “America stands squarely by their side, and I would urge the Iranian administration to treat them with the utmost of respect.” Of course, so long as the rest of the international community remains silent, such a statement can be manipulated by the Iranian regime to further its anti-American rhetoric. It will have a much more difficult time defending itself against a chorus of voices that includes Europe. This, of course, is not to say that Khatami is the problem. Clearly he has taken a step in the right direction, but we must also admit, if we wish to avoid being caught in the quicksand of hypocrisy, that clearly that is not enough.

The EU, Iran’s primary trading partner

Second, Europe needs to develop specific proposals in the framework of a coherent policy that throws some real weight behind such words. Unfortunately, in the conclusions of the June 16 2003 meeting of the European Council on Iran, the need for improving the human rights situation is mentioned vaguely, only once, and in passing, whereas nuclear concerns are highlighted in 6 of the 7 listed conclusions. On the other hand, proposals like the one presented recently at the Parliament, calling on the European Council to pressure the Iranian regime to allow a referendum on democracy, overseen by independent international observers, constitute a promising first step. Of course, any referendum on democracy would, de facto, also be a referendum on significant Constitutional change. Whereas the Iranian Constitution is, on the one hand, a hallmark of a fledgling Islamic “democracy,” it also presents the stiffest obstacle to true democracy in Iran: curtailing the powers of the elected Parliament by subordinating them to the un-elected council of clerics who can nullify any law passed by the legislature simply by labelling it as a violation of Islamic law. In short, diplomatic pressure, and if necessary, economic arm-twisting are in order, a role in which the EU, Iran’s primary trading partner, can certainly play a key part if it so chooses.

Third, citizens of Europe, by raising their voices in the streets and in the media, can also help clarify the ambiguity of their leaders’ policies of engaging Iran’s leaders in the hopes of peaceful reform, all the while standing witness to violent crackdowns on basic freedoms, including the silencing of over 100 newspapers, the censorship of internet websites, and the arbitrary arrests of peaceful protestors. The moral support of an international community of democracies - the same community of which Iranians are now seeking to become a part – is, more than ever, invaluable. We must clarify our position – as citizens and leaders – so that the Iranian regime, and most importantly these students, know whose side we are on.