Benjamin Weinthal, a Middle East Forum writing fellow and investigative journalist for the Jerusalem Post and Fox News, spoke to a March 10th Middle East Forum Webinar (video) about Europe's recent policy shift from appeasement of the Iranian regime to a more assertive approach. The following is a summary of his comments:
In the early 1980s, European Union (EU) members Austria and Germany established diplomatic relations with the Iranian regime that came to power after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Economically, Germany, as a key player on the continent, traded with the regime. In 1984, Germany's then-foreign minister traveled to Iran in an attempt, albeit unsuccessful, to moderate the "malign conduct" of Ayatollah Khomeini. The practice of "incentivizing Iran to change its behavior" based on trade has been Europe's "guiding principle" up to the present day. A current example is the stalled Iran nuclear deal, which would purportedly halt Iran's program to build a nuclear weapon in exchange for sanctions relief amounting to a hundred billion dollars.
The mullahs, who have imposed their revolutionary ideology on the population since 1979, largely "ignored" the European strategy and have continued to export the revolution while subjecting the Iranian people to their ruinous policies. Tehran's trade with Berlin has also continued, generating $1 billion a year, including Germany's sale of "dual-use equipment" to Iran, which includes "military and civilian equipment." In 2018, a German company sold "military applicable technology" to Iran that it used in "manufactured chemical missiles" that poisoned Syrians in 2018, without objection from Germany's Export Policy Commission. The U.S., under both Republican and Democrat administrations, had classified the Iranian regime as the "leading state sponsor of terrorism," but the EU had not. In 2020, as U.S. foreign policy hardened towards the regime, Germany refused to back America, and the Iranian president's chief-of-staff lauded Germany as the regime's "traditional partner."
However, two recent events have caused the EU policy to shift. The regime's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which controls approximately 70 percent of the Iranian economy, also controls the Basij paramilitary group that has been crushing the ongoing nationwide protests challenging Iran's rulers. The protests escalated following the murder of Mahsa Amini, the twenty-two-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman tortured and killed after her arrest by the regime's modesty police for not wearing her hijab headscarf to their liking. That event, as well as the transfer of Iran's drone technology to Russia as Putin's war against Ukraine grinds on, caused a formerly "unimaginable" resolution to emerge from the EU. The EU parliament is calling on its foreign ministers to classify the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization. The U.S., which designated the IRGC as a terrorist organization under the Trump administration, is to date the only country to have taken that step, while other Western governments are still debating the issue.
In response to the EU resolution, the EU's foreign minister and chief diplomat is making a "bogus" claim that such a designation would require a "legal precedent" – a claim that has been "debunked." Case law in Germany would allow the EU to proceed, but the EU cowers at the idea of challenging Iran because it believes the Iranian nuclear deal the Trump administration left, now revived under the Biden administration, will be in jeopardy. Although the EU believes the deal may stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, in fact it is "woefully inadequate" because it is only a "temporary stop" and will give Iran "enormous amounts of money to fund its terrorism." Weinthal reported that Iran's denial of its sales of drones to Russia is a "complete fiction."
According to foreign intelligence sources, the ayatollahs and Putin reached an agreement in July 2022 should negotiations for a nuclear deal collapse. In return for Putin's reliance on Iranian drones and military technology, Russia, tasked with warehousing Tehran's enriched uranium as part of any nuclear deal, has agreed to ship the fissile material back to Iran. If that "secret deal" came to fruition, the entire exercise of negotiating a deal to stop the mullahs from acquiring a nuclear bomb would be pointless.
The current EU stalemate requires a plan of action which will succeed if the EU's "individual member states" circumvent it. An existing precedent is that Germany and Austria have designated Hezbollah, "Iran's chief strategic partner," a "terrorist entity," even though France is blocking the EU from such a designation. It is time for Germany, which already has a legal precedent to "unilaterally" step out from behind the EU curtain, to designate the IRGC as a terrorist entity. In 2015, the Quds Force, an IRGC branch, paid a Pakistani in Germany, Syed Mustafa H., to collect intelligence on pro-Israel advocates in Western Europe as part of an assassination plot. Mustafa was arrested and convicted, but because American officials were also included on the "kill list," Weinthal believes "the U.S. should respond accordingly" to what he considers an "act of war." Recall how the regime "capitulated" and ceased its "illicit nuclear weapons program" in reaction to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The Iranians only understand "raw force and saber rattling." The sanctions against Iran are mild in comparison to the effectiveness of a U.S. administration that would be "willing to raise the bar" to rein in the mullahs.
Given the EU's current hesitation, the outcome hinges on whether Germany has the "political will" to be a leader for other countries to follow. In addition to the revived Iran nuclear deal's "impediment" cited as the cause for the EU's timidity, it is obvious the Europeans won't be able to continue to reap the enormous economic benefits of their trade agreements with Iran, leading to the end of any potential oil and gas deals with the regime. An EU terrorist designation will enable prosecutors to exercise greater latitude in cases against the IRGC, but if the EU designates as a terrorist entity the organization that controls a majority of the Iranian economy, Europe will be subject to trade restrictions that the U.S. will enforce.
Europeans claim they want to uphold human rights, but their foot-dragging and retreat from confronting Iran prove otherwise. The internal upheaval playing out in Iranian cities could be aided by Western labor unions, which could provide strike funds to the Iranians. Such a step could produce results similar to American labor unions' joining with the Polish Solidarity Trade Union strikers in the 1980s. The most meaningful way for Western leaders to express "democracy promotion in Iran" is to show solidarity with the people risking their lives protesting across the country and proclaim their support for "a post-Islamic Republic of Iran government."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.