The 2020 Munich Security Conference will be held from Friday, February 14, to Sunday, February 16. Among those attendees is Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who is scheduled to address the conference on Friday.
In an editorial published at Euronews on Tuesday, former Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs Giulio Terzi suggested that discussions at the Davos Forum were actually made more productive by the Iranian Foreign Minister’s absence and that the same would likely be true of the Munich Security Conference. Terzi cited “Zarif’s role as an apologist for an Islamist theocracy and the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism” as evidence that his contributions tend to poison the well of international dialogue while distracting from important opportunities for the planning of a multilateral response to Iran’s provocations.
On Monday, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), published an article on its website that called attention to Zarif’s public defense of the Iranian regime’s decision to withhold the release of black box recordings from Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752. The Boeing 737 left Tehran hours after the Revolutionary Guards’ January 8 missile strikes in Iraq, and it was shot down by Iranian air defense systems in an apparent case of mistaken identity.
— NCRI-FAC (@iran_policy) February 12, 2020
Tehran attempted to cover up the cause of the crash for three days, before satellite images, radar, and the on-the-ground video proved that the flight had been struck by two surface-to-air missiles. But the ongoing conflict over the black box suggests that the regime is still working to unilaterally control information. And Zarif’s public comments show him to be providing legal rationalizations for this decision on the international stage. This is emblematic of his role as “Tehran’s chief apologist,” and it makes the foreign minister’s invitation to the Munich Conference “a mistake along the lines of Europe’s long appeasement of the mullahs’ regime.”
Of course, concerns about “apologetics” and propaganda extend far beyond the issue of the Flight 752 disaster. Zarif has been defending some of the worst and most persistent foreign terrorism and domestic repression in the history of the clerical regime. In 1988, when Zarif was a career diplomat working for Iran’s UN mission, in that capacity, he helped to distract international attention away from the massacre of political prisoners, which left 30,000 political prisoners dead in the midst of efforts to stamp out Iran’s Democratic Resistance.
This past disregard for crimes against humanity set the stage for the foreign minister to downplay violent crackdowns on activists and protesters in recent years. After assuming his current role under regime’s President, Hassan Rouhani, Zarif famously used a television appearance in the United States to declare that Iranian authorities “do not arrest people for opinions.” The remark drew widespread ridicule at the time, but he has stood by it even in the wake of a nationwide uprising that began last November and led to upwards of 12,000 peaceful protesters being arrested, while 1,500 were killed in the streets.
At the same time that Zarif uses international appearances to contradict independent reports of the regime’s crackdowns, his position as Iran’s top diplomat arguably makes him an active participant in schemes to export that crackdown to foreign territory. Over the past two years, seven Iranian diplomats have been expelled from European host countries on suspicion of involvement in terrorist activity. One other diplomat, lately stationed in Austria, is facing charges in Belgium for having masterminded a plot to set off explosives at the NCRI’s gathering in Paris in June 2017.
— NCRI-FAC (@iran_policy) September 25, 2019
The investigation of that incident led to a spokesperson for the Belgian federal police saying that employees of Iran’s Secret Service are ubiquitous in its diplomatic establishment. It is virtually impossible for such a complex network of terrorist-diplomats to operate without the knowledge and approval of the foreign minister.
Furthermore, Zarif’s command of that network would be very much in keeping with his role as a point-of-contact with some of Iran’s terrorist proxies and allies. This time last year, he met with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah to reaffirm Tehran’s commitment to arming and supporting that paramilitary.
— NCRI-FAC (@iran_policy) May 14, 2016
That is sure to be a topic of discussion at the Munich Security Conference, as will the more specific issue of rising tensions between Iran and the West. But with Zarif scheduled to play a prominent role in the event, there are serious doubts about whether those discussions will manage to remain on track and free from disinformation. These doubts are only amplified by the absence of important European voices, and critics are sure to suggest that the West is abdicating its own voice on Iranian affairs while offering an open invitation to an Iranian official who has been described as the regime’s “propaganda minister.”
This was the language used by the U.S. administration in announcing economic sanctions on Zarif last year. The measures were implemented soon after the White House imposed similar sanctions on other high-ranking Iranian officials including Supreme Leader Khamenei. Each of these moves was greeted as a step in the right direction by the Iranians. But that same Iranians have regularly urged the nations of Europe to close ranks with US policy by isolating Zarif and ceasing to invite him to international gatherings. The existing plans for Munich indicate that that advice has yet to be taken seriously.