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Europe must seize the moment in Iran

West can help aid Iran’s freedom movement, not by vacillating, but by linking the regime’s treatment of its people

Gulf News

As the European Union’s (EU) High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Federica Mogherini is a tireless advocate for engaging rogue states. In her world, diplomacy with dictators should not aim to transition these countries to open societies, but rather to prevent conflicts at all costs.

Just consider her trip recently to Cuba. Did Mogherini use her visit to call attention to the struggle of human rights activists or to comfort the families of political prisoners? No, Mogherini was in Cuba to reassure a regime that Europe will not go along with America’s trade embargo.

“I know very well that right now some are trying to isolate Cuba. We Europeans want to show, on the contrary, that we are closer to you than ever,” she said in a speech at Cuba’s San Geronimo College. Stay tuned. Next month, Cuba’s minister for economic development will participate in a broader dialogue in Brussels on improving Europe’s ties to the island.

While Mogherini found her voice in Havana about Cuba’s “isolation”, she was mute on the popular uprising in Iran. She waited days to say anything about the demonstrations there. When she finally did, it was a mix of ingratiation and neutrality. “In the spirit of openness and respect that is at the root of our relationship,” she said, “we expect all concerned to refrain from violence and to guarantee freedom of expression.”

It’s as if Mogherini believes that Iranian demonstrators are arresting and silencing members of the state Basij militia, and not the other way around. And why does she speak of openness and respect? Has the European foreign policy chief not followed the ordeal of European dual national citizens, detained on trumped-up charges in Iran? Apparently this openness and respect is a one-way street.

Most strategists believe diplomacy is a tool for achieving a specific outcome in foreign relations. The only outcome Mogherini seems to seek is preservation of the status quo. That’s fine in moments of tranquillity and prosperity, not in moments when authoritarians are on the march in Europe and Asia.

When the United States was urging its allies to close embassies in North Korea, after a series of harrowing missile and nuclear tests last autumn, Mogherini delivered a speech to the European Parliament, emphasising Europe’s goal of opening “credible diplomatic channels” to the Hermit Kingdom. Better to jaw-jaw than to war-war, as Winston Churchill is said to have said.

The difference, however, is that Churchill knew an enemy when he saw one, and recognised when there was nothing left to discuss with aggressors.

Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the former president of Estonia, pointed to a public conversation from 2014 to illustrate the Mogherini method. When she was foreign minister of Italy, Ilves was on a panel at the Brussels Forum with her right after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine. Ilves, according to a video of the forum, made the point that Russia’s actions violated the United Nations charter and an agreement that Ukraine had made with the US, Russia and the United Kingdom to abandon its nuclear arsenal. He complained about the relatively anaemic response from the US and its allies to impose a round of sanctions and ban the travel of a group of senior Russian officials. Mogherini’s response was to ask: “So let’s bomb Russia? What is the solution then?”

Mogherini’s ideology is a particular tragedy in the case of Iran. The West can help aid Iran’s freedom movement by linking the regime’s treatment of its people, and particularly its political prisoners, to economic and political engagement. The US has some leverage here, but Europe — because so many of its businesses want a piece of Iran’s economy — has far more.

As Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution, told me last week: “This is the European moment on Iran.” Europe’s response to the regime’s violent suppression of protests after the stolen election of 2009 was firm. The EU should send the same message today: “We are not going to sustain political and economic engagement with a country engaged in the suppression of peaceful protests,” she said.

So far, Mogherini and the Europeans have delivered the opposite message. Recently, the high representative invited Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, to Brussels for more discussions on the Iran nuclear deal. Alireza Nader, an Iran expert at the RAND Corporation, told me last week that Mogherini’s statement on Iran was “saying both sides are equal, when it’s Iranian security forces that are shooting and killing people”.

Europe can and should do better. The position of high representative for foreign policy has not been filled with diplomatic all-stars. But past foreign policy chiefs have at least tried to introduce western values into European foreign policy. Ilves said the system was designed this way. “Member-states of the European Union have traditionally relied upon the European Union to do the human rights side of things,” he said. “Because of their national interests, member-states often won’t raise human rights issues. You want to get a deal. You want a pipeline.”

In Mogherini, Europe has a chief diplomat who doesn’t want to offend anyone. She seeks to build partnerships with them for the cause of peace. In another era, this supine credulity had a name: Appeasement.

— Bloomberg

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.

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