By: Alejo Vidal Quadras
Last December, the International Trade Centre announced the cancellation of an event that was intended to explore the expansion of economic cooperation between Europe and Iran. The decision stemmed from several cancellations by prospective European participants in the wake of reports that Iran had executed a dissident journalist after luring him out of France in a sting operation.
Ruhollah Zam had been residing in Europe for years. The obviously political nature of his arrest made him an object of international activism, especially after it became clear that the regime intended to execute him. When that execution went forward in December, it raised immediate outcry from human rights defenders and Western government officials.
While the controversy made it virtually unthinkable for European Union officials to participate in that month’s Europe-Iran Business Forum, it failed to give rise to increased pressure from the international community. This was especially disappointing to opponents of the Iranian regime who had already been urging an assertive turn in response to a terrorism case that was then being litigated in a Belgian court.
In late November, that court initiated proceedings against Assadollah Assadi and three co-conspirators who were accused of plotting to detonate a bomb at a gathering of pro-democracy activists in 2018, when Assadi was serving as third counsellor at the Iranian embassy in Vienna. The trial concluded on February 4 with guilty verdicts for all four defendants and prison sentences ranging from 15 to 20 years.
Throughout the process, critics of the Iranian regime called attention to evidence that responsibility for the plot could be traced up the chain of command to high-ranking officials including the supreme leader, the president, and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. On this basis, many of those same critics urged the European Union, its Member States, and its allies to plan a political response that would supplement Assadi’s guilty verdict.
Not only did these recommendations receive no direct response from the authorities to whom they were addressed, but figures like EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell have seemingly taken exactly the opposite approach of disregarding Iran’s recent malign activity in favor of preserving the status quo and promoting expanded diplomatic and trade ties between Europe and Iran. Their posture was highlighted this month when it was reported that the Europe-Iran Business Forum was back on, newly scheduled to take place between March 1 and 3 with participation from the same European figures who had signed on previous, including those who withdrew in response to the news of Zam’s execution.
This sends a message that is, at best, confusing about European attitudes toward Iranian threats. The revived plans for the Business Forum suggest that former complaints over the execution of Ruhollah Zam have been resolved, even though Tehran has paid no price for it and has publicly rejected all accusations of wrongdoing. This is much the same approach as Tehran took to the Assadi case, in that the regime declined to dispute the relevant evidence but consistently stood behind its diplomat, asserting that he should have immunity and that his actions were either justified or inconsequential despite the threat to high-profile European and American political figures who were present at the 2018 Free Iran rally.
Under these circumstances, participation in the Europe-Iran Business Forum suggests one’s willingness to overlook Iranian assaults on Western interests as well as unlawful killings of Iranian activists and civilians. The event’s postponement did place some distance between the latest high-profile killing and the affirmation of status quo relations, but this is a far cry from accountability and if it has any effect at all, it will only be to convince Iranian authorities that they can ignore a tense situation for a few months and then count on their European partners to sweep it under the rug.
Similarly, Assadi’s conviction may allow European authorities to argue that the 2018 terror plot was not ignored entirely, even as Tehran’s sense of impunity is reinforced with the notion that as long as one person takes the blame, not even attempted terrorism on European soil will threaten the status quo.
Neither of these conditions represents much of a constraint on the regime’s activity. If anything, they only raise questions about what the EU and its Member States are willing to overlook immediately, versus what they are willing to overlook after the passage of a week, a month, a few months, or a year. No doubt, these are questions that Tehran will quickly set to work trying to answer through a process of brinksmanship involving new and different escalations, followed by silence and negotiation in those instances where the West responds with a little pressure.
Prospective participants in the Europe-Iran Business Forum should consider whether they believe this is a sustainable way of managing the Iranian regime’s conduct. If they are honest, they will recognize that with every such invitation that they extend to the Iranian regime, European policymakers and institutions are only inviting the regime to experiment further with its malign behaviors. While not all of these will threaten Western security in the way the Assadi plot did -future attacks could be even worse-, all of them should weigh heavily on the consciences of their enablers.
At the meantime, crackdowns on dissent have been trending upward since the beginning of 2018, when the regime was rocked by a nationwide uprising.
That uprising was the start of a larger pattern of domestic unrest, which manifests sometimes on a national scale and sometimes in localities where public antipathy toward the regime flares up in response to one incident or another. Recognizing that pattern, the regime has taken to responding to these situations with especially knee-jerk brutality, spurred on by the understanding that Western governments will not hold them to account.
Just this week, a large-scale protest erupted in Saravan County in Sistan and Baluchistan Province, in response to the killing of several fuel porters by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The protest called attention to the poverty that makes that profession necessary, as well as the brutality with which authorities confront it. And it was accordingly met with similarly suppressive brutality by the IRGC and local security forces. At least 40 civilians were killed and 100 were injured in less than one day of demonstrations.
Saravan Uprising, No. 1 – People of Saravan Stage Uprising, Take Over the Governor’s Office
Dozens of young people killed or wounded
Mrs. Maryam Rajavi hailed those who lost their lives as martyrs to the cause of freedom#Iran #IranProtestshttps://t.co/NL96dAoCZB
— NCRI-FAC (@iran_policy) February 23, 2021
Incidents like this one will only continue to proliferate for as long as Tehran believes it can get away with them. And that belief will persist for as long as such disgraceful events take place against the backdrop of open diplomatic exchanges and cooperative ventures among Iranian and European institutions. If the regime’s resulting sense of impunity is not seriously challenged in the near future, its acts of domestic repression will surely find another parallel in attempted attacks on the opposition abroad.
Alejo Vidal-Quadras, a professor of atomic and nuclear physics, was vice-president of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2014. He is President of the International Committee In Search of Justice (ISJ)