For much of the past 40 years, European policy toward the Iranian regime has tended toward soft diplomacy and outright appeasement. Throughout that time, Iranian officials have cleverly exploited that impulse by portraying themselves as being divided between two factions – a “hardline” wing that is reflexively belligerent toward Western adversaries and a group of “reformists” who are comparatively interested in compromise and international cooperation. Among European and even American policymakers, the predominant response to this narrative has involved trying to contain the former by reaching out to the latter.
Despite its longevity, this objective has always been an illusion, and no amount of Western outreach has yielded meaningful progress toward changing the Iranian regime’s behavior. Quite to the contrary, the past eight years have been defined by the nominal leadership of a “moderate” presidential administration, and yet every indication is that the regime’s malign activities have become more severe and more deeply entrenched. The era of Hassan Rouhani has featured increased restrictions on the rights of women and minorities, an upsurge in the number of Western hostages held in Iranian prisons, and some of the worst crackdowns on human rights in the country’s recent history.
Over several days in November 2019 alone, Iranian authorities fatally shot approximately 1,500 citizens who were participating in a nationwide uprising against the theocratic dictatorship. The incident naturally led to increased calls for economic pressure and diplomatic isolation as tools for safeguarding the Iranian people’s rights to campaign for genuine democracy in their homeland. The massacre and its context were mentioned, for instance, in a resolution that was recently introduced to the US House of Representatives with more than 220 co-sponsors.
Last week when state media leaked a private interview with the regime’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, once again the illusion of moderation inside the regime faded away. The interview, supposedly part of a research project that was to be archived by the government, included remarks that described Zarif’s diplomatic role as being overshadowed by the paramilitary objectives of hardline figures like Qassem Soleimani, the late commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ foreign special operations wing, the Quds Force.
While Zarif’s commentary gave the appearance of bitterly pushing back against a situation in which those hardliners dominate foreign policy, it did not reveal any concrete measures that he or his “moderate” colleagues had taken to change that situation. Neither did it explicitly contradict any of the earlier, more public statements that suggested Zarif and the Rouhani administration were actually content to play their part in the status quo. In fact, the foreign minister promptly made this explicit when he clarified his remarks this week and apologized to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for what the latter called a “big mistake.”
Zarif’s more recent expressions of devotion to Khamenei are an important reminder of the fact that the entire Iranian system of government is structured to exclude any real elements of reform. If anyone were to challenge the top cleric’s unchecked authority or his fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, he would be barred from holding elected or appointed office by the Guardian Council, which in turn is more or less directly appointed by the supreme leader.
Under this arrangement, if Zarif were to offer serious and unqualified complaints about his status in comparison to Soleimani or other “heroes” of the regime, he would never be able to act upon them. But more to the point, no major figure within the theocratic system would actually make such complaints, and Zarif never has.
The illusion of moderation inside the regime and adoption of appeasement policy by the West has resulted in the international marginalization of a real, democratic alternative to the theocratic regime. Since the end of 2017, there have been at least three nationwide protest movements in Iran which were led by the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK) and driven by popular demands for a wholesale change of regime.
In light of those uprisings, it is more important than ever for European policymakers to dispense with their conciliatory impulses and ignore the regime’s effort to promote a false narrative of factional divides within the ruling system. If the West continues to fall for that ploy again, it will risk prolonging the theocratic dictatorship’s life long past the point at which it would otherwise be brought to an end by the coordinated efforts to pro-democracy activists both inside Iran and throughout the world.