European disunity on Iran
Developments over the past few days have made it quite clear that Europe is divided over Iran in several ways. There are major differences between the continent’s governments, but there are also internal differences between the security and political establishments on how to deal with Iran. In addition, there are growing differences between the EU and its member states over the issue. America’s assertive plans to confront Iran are forcing those differences into the open.
Take, for example, the upcoming conference, dubbed as the “Ministerial to Promote a Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East,” which is scheduled for Feb. 13-14. Although it is being co-hosted in Warsaw by Poland and the US, EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini is skipping the conference due to a “scheduling conflict,” despite the fact that most EU members are expected to send high-level delegations. The main reason for some planning to skip the conference is that they expect it to focus on Iran’s destabilizing activities.
The EU and key European states keep saying that their support for maintaining the nuclear deal with Iran does not mean they are unconcerned about Iran’s malign activities or its ballistic missile program. But, when the US and Poland called for a meeting to discuss those issues, together with countering terrorism, the EU has decided to avoid that discussion.
Similarly, there are clear differences between Europe’s security and political establishments. The former is quite concerned about Iran’s support for terrorism, including on European soil. The politicians, on the other hand, appear to be fixated on the nuclear deal in the hope that it will open up new opportunities for trade and investment in Iran; and they have gone to extreme lengths to confront the US, not Iran, to do so.
The EU has enacted legislation to counteract American sanctions against Iran and is readying a special entity: The so-called Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV), “a system to facilitate non-dollar trade with Iran and circumvent US sanctions,” according to EU officials. Some European countries are reported to be taking secret measures to further the SVP, but are balking at hosting it for fear of US secondary sanctions.
EU politicians appear to be fixated on the nuclear deal in the hope it will open up new opportunities for trade
Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
On the other hand, earlier this month, the EU sanctioned Iran over attacks in France, Denmark and the Netherlands, including the murders of two Iranian opposition figures living in Europe. The EU was forced by its member states to take this action after resisting repeated calls to sanction Iran. For months, Denmark led efforts to impose disciplinary measures. Similarly, two Iranian diplomats were expelled from the Netherlands in 2018. The expulsions were meant to “underline that this behavior is unacceptable and needs to stop immediately,” according to Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok.
It took the EU almost a year to sanction two individuals who were caught red-handed: Assadollah Asadi, a diplomat accredited to the Iranian Embassy in Vienna, and Saeid Hashemi Moghadam, deputy chief in Iran’s Ministry for Intelligence and Security. The sanctions included freezing their European assets and travel bans — quite mild measures. The sanctions are in response to an attempt to bomb an Iranian opposition rally in Paris and assassinate an Iranian-Norwegian dissident from Ahvaz living in Denmark. The Netherlands also witnessed two separate murders of Iranian dissidents on its soil, in 2015 and 2017.
The growing international consensus on the range of Iran’s threats and the need to rein in its behavior has been motivated by those attacks in Europe, as well as Iran’s firing of short-range ballistic missiles into Syria last September, tests of long-range missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, and a satellite launch this month. This consensus is forcing European powers to take action.
On Monday, Germany, the EU’s largest member, revoked the license of Iranian airline Mahan Air to operate in Germany and banned it from its airports. According to Foreign Ministry spokesman Christofer Burger, the measure was necessary to protect Germany’s “foreign and security policy interests.”
Mahan Air is Iran’s second-largest carrier after Iran Air and is used to operate regular flights to German cities. Mahan Air was blacklisted by the US in 2011, and Gulf Cooperation Council member states have recently sanctioned the airline for serving as the main carrier for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Qassem Soleimani’s Quds Force. Mahan Air uses the cover of a civilian airline to ferry weapons, ammunition and fighters to Syria and other countries where it is allowed to fly. Part of the reason why Germany acted now is that the US had threatened sanctions against countries and companies offering the airline landing rights or services.
EU foreign ministers are known to be pushing Brussels on the need to stake a clearer position on Iran’s support for terrorism, its missile tests and its malign interference in its neighbors’ internal affairs. But the EU, led by its chief diplomat Mogherini, wants to see the SPV established first.
Thus the planned conference in Poland next month will be an interesting test for European unity on dealing with Iran. Mogherini or other foreign ministers skipping the conference would be remarkable and would suggest that Europe, or parts of it at least, are giving priority to hoped-for mercantilist gains from courting Iran over a principled position against Tehran’s destabilization of the region, its support for terrorism worldwide, including in Europe, and its suppression of human rights at home.
• Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal, and do not necessarily represent those of the GCC.