The deadly street protests in Iran have opened up yet another fault line between U.S. President Donald Trump and European allies.
The EU’s tepid response to the protests, in contrast to Trump’s blunt calls for the overthrow of the Iranian government, has opened Europe to criticism of siding with fundamentalist ayatollahs over citizens wanting a better life.
And the new divide is also tangled up with another major disagreement between Trump and the EU — over the Iran nuclear accord. Trump has railed against the deal — a legacy of his predecessor Barack Obama — and alleged that the money Tehran has received from the lifting of sanctions has funded terrorism and corruption. The EU, and the European governments that helped broker the agreement, have risen to its defense, saying that it provides crucial safeguards and makes it easier to engage Tehran on other issues.
That staunch support for the agreement puts the EU in the awkward position of appearing to support an Iranian government long viewed as repressive at home and a sponsor of terrorism and military mayhem abroad.
But the EU’s stance, led by its high representative for foreign affairs, Federica Mogherini, reflects a view in European capitals, especially Berlin and Paris, that the nuclear deal should be seen separately from the protests, and actually serves to increase the West’s leverage in Tehran.
“The reaction has not been slow but carefully considered, given the fragmentary nature of news” — EU official
“Breaking all contact would lead to the risk of strengthening the extremists,” French President Emmanuel Macron told journalists in Paris on Wednesday night, echoing a point that Mogherini has made repeatedly since October when Trump announced that he was decertifying the Iran deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel struck a similarly measured tone on the demonstrations. “We appeal to the Iranian government to respect the rights of the demonstrators to assemble and to peacefully raise their voices,” he said. “After the confrontations of recent days, it is all the more important that all sides refrain from violent actions.”
The EU’s cautious reaction to the demonstrations — Mogherini called the deaths of protesters “unacceptable” but urged “all concerned” to refrain from violence — also reflects the European view that the U.S. has become a dangerous and unpredictable actor in Middle East policy, a reality driven home in their view byTrump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital.
Driving home the divide between Brussels and Washington, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence criticized European allies in an op-ed in The Washington Post.
“Unfortunately, many of our European partners, as well as the United Nations, have thus far failed to forcefully speak out on the growing crisis in Iran,” Pence wrote. “It’s time for them to stand up.”
The EU position may seem limp compared to Trump calling the Iranian government “brutal and corrupt” and tweeting “TIME FOR CHANGE!” but EU officials say all 28 member countries are behind their stance on the protests and the nuclear deal. They said not one of the 28 capitals asked for changes to the statement that Mogherini released Tuesday night.
At the same time that the EU has refused to follow the path of Trump or Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in support of an uprising, Brussels also has not taken Russia’s position that the demonstrations are no one’s business but Iran’s.
EU officials also justify their caution by citing concern about a lack of information about what is happening on the ground in Iran, and a reluctance to play into the hands of officials like Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, who has already tried to blame the protests on external “enemies” rather than accept responsibility for the economic problems and corruption fueling public outrage.
“The reaction has not been slow but carefully considered, given the fragmentary nature of news,” an EU official said.
This official also rejected the assertion that the EU was not backing the street. “You condemn violence and protect rights, you don’t side with one side or the other. It would be called interference … and you can do even less when there’s such little clarity about what’s going on.”
Still, to many, Mogherini’s initial response looked slow and stumbling, opening her and the EU to criticism that it was standing by silently as the Iranian government killed protesters.
At least a dozen people had died during street protests by the time Mogherinitweeted her New Year’s Day blog post titled “Twelve things to bring with us in 2018.” The post included a strong defense of the Iranian nuclear deal and its implementation, but not a word about the deaths or criticism of Tehran.
The EU’s first comment on the protests came not from Mogherini but from a spokeswoman late in the evening on January 1 — about an hour after Mogherini tweeted out her blog post, during which time she was hit with scathing criticism on social media.
“Shame on you!” wrote one Twitter commenter who quoted a statement from Netanyahu wishing “the Iranian people success in their noble quest for freedom.” The social media user added, “Not even a single word about the brave Iranians who are pouring into the streets. who seek freedom. who seek justice. Federica, the world is watching, and the world will remember your silence.”
Another commenter, who identified himself on Twitter as Hamid Ashraf, a democracy activist based in Iran, wrote, “Iranian people will remember the silence of EU on the mass arrests and murdering the people engaged in peaceful protests.”
Today on my blog: Twelve things to bring with us in 2018http://www.federicamogherini.net/twelve-things-to-bring-with-us-2018/?lang=en … pic.twitter.com/9t9NguUfxF
Another EU official defended the response, noting there were statements by individual countries followed by a consistent and united stance by the EU as a whole.
“As EU, we have been in contact with the Iranian authorities since the beginning of the crisis, as well as with EU member states and our partners. We’ll continue to engage with all, to convey messages,” the official said.
But the official made clear that Brussels was unwilling to conflate the issues of the street protests and the nuclear agreement.
Diplomats said that the dispute over the nuclear agreement was clear evidence of the deep and widening breach between Trump’s Washington and European allies.
For much of Trump’s first year in office, European leaders trod gingerly, hoping to avoid confrontation with the new president even as he took steps that dismayed them — angrily demanding increased military spending as a “debt” owed to Washington, pulling out of the Paris climate change accord, hurling personal insults and threatening war with North Korea, retweeting the rhetoric of a far-right, anti-Muslim group in Britain.
But Trump’s decision in December to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was a major turning point.
Even before Trump’s formal announcement, Mogherini, a former Italian foreign minister, made no secret of her anger. Last month, she stood steel-faced during a joint appearance in Brussels with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and reiterated the EU’s support for a two-state solution, with Jerusalem as “the future capital of both states.”
Trump ignored the warnings by Mogherini and others, leading to a remarkable vote by the U.N. General Assembly rebuking the U.S. administration, with 22 of the 28 EU countries voting against Washington and six abstentions. No one in Europe backed Trump, and there is also no willingness to follow his lead on Iran.
Trump has also used the protests to repeat his assertions that the Iran nuclear deal, by lifting economic sanctions, gave Tehran access to billions of dollars that it used for terrorism or that was simply stolen.
The people of Iran are finally acting against the brutal and corrupt Iranian regime. All of the money that President Obama so foolishly gave them went into terrorism and into their “pockets.” The people have little food, big inflation and no human rights. The U.S. is watching!
While Trump’s allegations may be impossible to prove, they fit the complaints of at least some demonstrators in Iran, who say that economic conditions at home have only worsened since the signing of the 2015 nuclear accord.
Meanwhile, since the signing of the accord, EU countries and companies have rushed to resume business with Iran.
Deals worth hundreds of millions have been struck in the two years since, such as the contract by Hungarian busmaker Ikarus to supply 1,000 vehicles. Delegations of Iranian officials and business leaders have visited countries across the Continent, including Spain, Sweden and Poland.
Some opponents of the Iranian government have long voiced dismay over the EU’s willingness to engage with Tehran.
In a blog post after the outbreak of protests last week, Struan Stevenson, a Conservative former member of the European Parliament from Scotland, urged the EU to shift course.
“It is time the EU stopped its wretched, handwringing policy of appeasement to one of the most repressive regimes in the world,” Stevenson wrote. “Instead, Europe must now demonstrate solidarity with the 80 million Iranian citizens who are struggling to overthrow the fascist clerical regime and replace it with a modern, democratic government.”