Europe’s Relationship With Iran Has Never Been Worse

In a debate last week European parliamentarians from across the political spectrum ripped into EU foreign minister Joseph Borrell’s Iran policy. They accused Borrell of having “failed’’ to change the behavior of the Iranian regime and called on him to abandon attempts at rapprochement and instead downgrade ties.

Borrell’s Iran policy has thus far been dominated by his efforts to revive the nuclear deal with Iran at the insistence of Germany, France and the United Kingdom or the E3, the European partners to the agreement.  But as Iran continues to repress people at home despite mass protests calling for change, sell drones to aid Russia against Ukraine, and continue to incarcerate European tourists to extract political and economic concessions in exchange for their release, representatives of the European people say it is time for a rethink.

David Liga, a Swedish parliamentarian from the conservative grouping European People’s Party (EPP) who called for the debate, said the European Union (EU) must refuse “any negotiations with the Iranian regime” presumably in reference to Borrell’s mediation to resurrect the deal.

The debate was called to commemorate the first anniversary of the killing of Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old Iranian woman arrested for allegedly “improperly” wearing her hijab and killed in police custody. But the parliamentarians were particularly enraged at the recent revelation that the Swedish national held hostage by Iranian authorities since last year was a government official, a European diplomat at Borrell’s External Affairs Service (EEAS).

Foreign Policy has learned that Borrell sees no urgency among member state governments— whom he ultimately answers to in the EU—to change his existing strategy. “If the member states want a change in the policy, they can raise it. But so far there is no real push to rethink,” an anonymous source aware of the workings at the EEAS told FP.

Yet Borrell’s policy is increasingly under public scrutiny. Cornelius Adebahr, Nonresident Fellow at Carnegie, argued that since September last year, the month Amini was killed, public mood in Europe has become a deciding factor. “For decades, Iran policy was made outside of the public view,” he responded to FP in an email, but it might now have to be taken into consideration.

The EU parliamentarians were incensed at Iran’s audacity in abducting a Swedish diplomat last year—and at EU authorities for keeping it under wraps for more than 500 days. (The news was first reported by the New York Times earlier this month.) Johan Floderus, a member of the Afghanistan delegation at the EU’s diplomatic Corps, returning from a trip to Iran with friends last April when he was arrested at the Tehran airport on spurious charges. He has been held in solitary confinement in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison with less than half an hour of fresh air a day, and only one phone call per month since February. His abduction has added impetus to calls for reassessing and amending EU’s Iran policy.

Few doubt that Iran intends to exchange Floderus for Iranian official Hamid Noury, convicted in Sweden last year for playing a key role in the killings of thousands in 1988. He was tried under universal jurisdiction which allows countries to prosecute foreign nationals for crimes against humanity.

Nastran, an Iran-based activist of opposition group Mojahedin-e-Khalq  (MEK), spoke from Tehran via encrypted communications with FP, through an Europe-based intermediary. Nastran, too, was imprisoned in Evin in solitary confinement and said Floderus’ abduction is a result of Europe’s “appeasement” policy.

Last month the US succumbed to Iran’s hostage diplomacy. In exchange for five Americans held hostage in Iran the US not only released five Iranian prisoners but waived restrictions on international banks to transfer $6 billion in withheld oil revenues from South Korea, through Qatar, to the Islamic Republic. A few months ago the Belgian government gave in and released Iranian diplomat Assadullah Assadi who had been convicted of plotting a terror strike in France on a rally of MEK  to secure the release of a Belgian aid worker.

“We all noticed that Asadullah Asadi was exchanged in return for the Belgian hostage,” Nastran said in Farsi. “It is obvious the regime wants to use the Swedish diplomat who works for the European Union to get Hamid Noury.”

Mohammad Marandi, an Iranian political analyst demurred from discussing specific cases, but acknowledged a precedent of prisoner exchange. “Mr. Noury has clearly been entrapped,” he said. “Its a two-way street,’’ he added. “Hypothetically speaking we have already seen prisoner exchanges, the same could happen in the future. It would be clearly possible.”

In the address to the parliament before the debate ensued Borrell acknowledged that the EU’s relations with Iran were “at a low point,” but underscored the importance of maintaining “critical engagement.” Borrell said he was doing everything he could to get Floderus released but in the absence of specifics it sounded more like an empty assurance. Some experts said he seemed to be passing the buck when he said the Swedish authorities, “have the first responsibility of consular protection.”

Among them was Michael Thaidigsmann, the Executive Director of NGO EU Watch, which wrote an open letter to Borrell recommending a coordinated European response to free all Europeans incarcerated in Iran, at least 22 in all. “If I read Mr Borrell correctly he wants to maintain open channels (with Iran) but those channels are not needed to save the hostages, his argument is that’s the job of each European country, to save their own,” he told Foreign Policy from Berlin. “Just imagine one of your staff members, one of your own has been held hostage and that’s your response.”

The parliamentarians slammed Borrell and demanded a slew of punitive measures until all illegally detained Europeans, foremost one of their own, were freed and safely repatriated.

Bart Groothuis from the Netherlands represented the Renew Group and made three suggestions, popular among and reiterated by other MEPs. “As long as Europeans can be taken hostage without any reason we must not allow Europeans to travel to Iran,” he said. “Two, expel Iranian ambassadors from Europe,” he added. Finally, Groothuis said, put the IRGC on the terrorist list and complement that with sanctions on the supreme leader whose office is responsible for nearly daily violations of human rights.

Evin Incir, a member of European parliament (MEP) with the left-leaning Socialists and Democrats group, accused Borrell of silent diplomacy, basically doing nothing. “To be silent is to be compliant,” she said, “compliance can’t be the way forward if we truly stand for what we claim we stand for and we preach,” Incir said in reference to the EU’s promise to push for basic human rights.

Peter Stano, the spokesperson of the EEAS, told FP that the EU’s Iran policy was already “very critical.”  He said: “We have imposed several rounds of sanctions this year, both for human rights violations and for Iran’s military support in Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. But any change of the existing policy can only made in unanimity with all 27 member states,” Stano added.

Ahmadreza Djalali, a Swedish Iranian dual citizen, was already languishing in the Evin Prison when Floderus was apprehended. His wife Vida Mehrania spoke to FP from Sweden. “I can understand their pain,” she said of Floderus’ family. “The government never tells us anything about what they are doing. I think if we are united we can get more support, help our loved ones more.” Djalali has been behind bars in Iran for more than 2,600 days and has been sentenced to death by the Iranian judiciary.

The policy Borrell and individual foreign ministers have adopted, clearly, is not discouraging Iran from apprehending EU citizens. Yet, there is a reluctance to rethink. “Some countries don’t want it,” said Thaidigsmann of the EU Watch. “They don’t want Iran to fall in Russia and China’s arms.” (In an open embrace of the Islamic regime, and perhaps in solidarity after large scale protests inside Iran since Amini’s killing, China and Russia invited it to join BRICS.)

Borrell himself seems indignant, according to two EU sources. He is indicating that the complaints over the diplomat’s abduction and the secrecy around it should be targeted at Swedish authorities, not his office. The EEAS, sources said, is pointing fingers elsewhere, towards the NYT reporter for revealing the identity of the abducted Swedish national, the member states who should take the onus and get their citizens released through bilateral deals, and to both the US and Iran for their intransigence in reviving the nuclear deal.

There are two schools of thought in Brussels over how to deal with Iran. One, represented by the increasingly vocal EU parliamentarians, increasingly believes that the current policy has failed to deliver and that a more punishing approach is needed. The other is still holding on to hope that they can keep Iran out of the Chinese fold and still leverage the nuclear deal. The latter group is dwindling—but Borrell still seems committed to it for now.

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