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Europe-Iran Business Forum Signals Willingness To Overlook the Worst Malign Activities

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Starting on Monday, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and several other figures from European political and business circles are expected to take part in the three-day Europe-Iran Business Forum. The event was originally scheduled for December but was postponed as a result of international outcry over the Iranian regime’s execution of opposition journalist Ruhollah Zam.

The current plans make it unfortunately obvious that the postponement was motivated by reputational concerns among the Europeans and not by a genuine desire to hold Tehran accountable for human rights violations. If this were not the case, then demands for accountability would have only grown stronger over the past two months. Instead, they seem to have virtually evaporated from among the institutions sponsoring the Business Forum, despite recurring demands for more assertive policy from serious critics of the Iranian regime.

Many of those critics emphasized the idea that a lack of accountability promises to have negative consequences not just for the Iranian people but also for the Western nations that Tehran publicly considers its enemies. To illustrate this, individual lawmakers and Iran-focused NGOs like the International Committee in Search of Justice (ISJ) have issued a number of statements calling attention to the 2018 terror plot in which an Iranian diplomat and three accomplices planned to set off explosives at a gathering of Iranian expatriates near Paris.

The diplomat, Assadollah Assadi, personally smuggled the requisite explosives into Europe and then handed them off to two of his co-conspirators, an Iranian-Belgian couple that had resided in Europe for years as a sleeper cell. Assadi was also reported to have scouted the venue ahead of time, and was no doubt aware of the fact that hundreds of political dignitaries from across Europe and throughout the world were expected to participate and be seated close to the attack’s prime target, the Iranian Resistance leader Maryam Rajavi.

An Iranian diplomat convicted to 20 years imprisonment by a court in Belgium - February 2021

Thankfully, the plot was thwarted in a counterterrorism operation involving multiple European agencies. But if it had gone forward as planned, it would have no doubt resulted in hundreds of fatalities, including European lawmakers, scholars, and foreign policy experts. This was affirmed in a Belgian court case that began last November and concluded on February 4 with guilty verdicts for all four conspirators and a 20-year prison sentence for the mastermind, Assadi.

The legal proceedings also highlighted the fact that Assadi had not been operating on his own initiative with this plot, but had undertaken it in the name of the Iranian regime and on orders from high within the clerical regime. Even before Assadi’s guilty verdict was returned, ISJ called attention to this in a statement that was signed by former government officials from more than a dozen European nations. It stated that they were “deeply concerned that the EU has failed to take adequate measures,” and it went on to explain what those adequate measures might entail.

“The activities of Iran’s embassies, religious and cultural centers need to be scrutinized and diplomatic relations with Iran need to be downgraded” pending Iranian commitments to dismantling any and all terrorist networks in Europe, the statement said. In light of Assadi’s high-ranking diplomatic status and the accompanying evidence of involvement among the regime’s senior most leadership, the statement also declared that “Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif must be held accountable for his diplomat’s proven role in plotting to blow up a peaceful rally in Villepinte, France.”

The recent announcement of a new schedule for the Europe-Iran Business Forum underscored the EU leadership’s disregard for these recommendations. As had been the case in December, Javad Zarif is expected to deliver a keynote speech as part of the event, and has been featured right alongside Josep Borrell in promotional materials. ISJ and its supporters took precise aim at those plans in another statement last week, warning that such legitimization of the Iranian government and Foreign Ministry threatens to embolden the regime’s malign activities and increase the likelihood of further terrorist plots in the future.

Separately, representatives of more than 200 Iranian communities from throughout the world issued a statement to European Council President Charles Michel on Monday condemning “the inexcusable silence and inaction of Western countries” and undermining the central impulse behind the Europe-Iran Business Forum. Far from embracing the notion of commerce as a source of productive dialogue with Tehran, the statement urged the EU to withhold all business and “predicate any economic and trade relations with the Iranian regime on the cessation of executions and torture and the improvement of the human rights situation, the end of terrorism in Europe, the cessation of illegal nuclear and missile programs, and the end of inciting conflicts in the region.”

The side-by-side references to human rights and international terrorism were not incidental to this statement or to others like it. Instead, they served to highlight the fact that the regime’s motivation for the 2018 terror plot was largely the same as its motivation for recent and ongoing acts of domestic repression. While such repression has always been a feature of the Iranian regime, it has grown more severe and more consistent in the three years since a nationwide uprising initiated by the leading democratic opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK).

That protest movement met with unprovoked shootings and mass arrests in January 2018, which left dozens of people dead and thousands at risk of permanent health effects from mistreatment behind the bars of Iran’s notorious prison facilities. But the repression did not prevent Iranians from rising up again, and in November 2019, as protests were occurring in nearly 200 cities and towns, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps opened fire on crowds and killed 1,500 people in a matter of only days.

All indications are that this unmitigated brutality persists to the present day, both in the form of crackdowns on the public expression of dissent and in the form of law enforcement and judicial practices that reinforce a culture of terror. Less than two months into 2021, it was reported that Iran had executed at least 60 individuals, and this week there was news of regime authorities once again panicking in the face of domestic unrest and opening fire on unarmed demonstrators, whose activity had been sparked this time by Tehran’s deliberate effort to destroy the livelihoods of severely impoverished porters in the border province of Sistan and Baluchistan.

Angry locals storm Governor’s Office after IRGC kill residents in SE Iran

According to the MEK, after only one day of clashes between the IRGC and that province’s residents, at least 40 civilians were killed and 100 were injured. Those numbers are all but certain to grow, and if the Europe-Iran Business Forum goes forward as planned it will do so in the immediate aftermath of this latest round of Iranian human rights violations.

Tehran cannot realistically be expected to respond to this with anything other than renewed confidence in its own impunity. Regardless of the Forum’s actual outcome, it will surely signal that the EU is willing to overlook anything Iran does as long as extensive international attention doesn’t threaten to embarrass European officials personally. In the near term, that message is sure to fuel ongoing human rights abuses in Iran. And in the long run, the regime will surely try to export those abuses to Europe once again.