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EU and US take different approach to Iran

Matthias von Hein
January 3, 2018

Iran is currently being rocked by the largest wave of protests it has seen since 2009. Calls from around the world range from demanding regime change and voicing support for demonstrators to appealing for restraint.

Iran, Teheran, Protest
Image: Getty Images

As is so often the case in Iran, protests there are playing out on several different levels: Inside the country, developments are unfolding on the streets — which have been the scene of massive demonstrations for and against the regime, but also between different poles within the country's political establishments. Outside Iran, various players are trying to find the right approach to the situation.

The greatest worry is that one might inadvertently strengthen the position of hardliners in Tehran while at the same time weakening the hand of moderates. Statements of sympathy and understanding for demonstrators and their cause have once again highlighted the divergent approaches taken by Europe and the United States when it comes to dealing with Iran.

The US position was made clear when President Donald Trump issued a New Year's tweet calling for regime change. US security expert Ariane Tabatabai from Georgetown University in Washington says that such calls are counterproductive. Speaking with DW, Tabatabai called for restraint: "We should demand that Iran respect people's right to assemble without telling them what to do."

Norbert Röttgen, a parliamentarian from Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) who chairs the Bundestag's foreign affairs committee, warned that carelessly expressed opinions could allow leaders in Tehran to claim that the uprising is being orchestrated from abroad. He advised against anyone making statements that would easily allow Tehran to say: "Look there, at our enemies, at the non-Muslim world! They are on the side of the demonstrators. But we are defending the purity of Shia Islam against the heretics abroad." Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made just such a reference to foreign meddling on Tuesday when he labeled the protests a conspiracy by the "enemies of Iran."

Turkish Foreign Minister Meslut Cavusoglu also claimed that the US and Israel were supporting the protests. Speaking with CNN Turk, Cavusoglu said that his country was opposed to any form of outside interference in Iran.

Shades of earlier meddling

Accusations of such outside interference fall on fertile ground when it comes to Iran. Many in the country are very aware of the CIA's orchestration of the 1953 coup that ousted Iran's democratically elected prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, which was followed by a quarter-century of brutal dictatorship under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The fact that, in his first year in office, Trump quickly declared that his staunch opposition to Iran would be a guiding principle in his Middle East policy has only fueled suspicion of US involvement in the latest unrest.

Röttgen believes that Trump has lost all credibility on the issue because "he is constantly trying to mobilize the Sunni world against Iran." Röttgen said that Europe and Germany, in contrast, have maintained credibility: "We stand by the nuclear deal, which will bring economic relief to the people by loosening sanctions. And that gives us a completely different level of credibility, one that we should actively leverage — albeit, within realistic limits."

Iran nuclear deal
Röttgen: 'We stand by the nuclear deal'Image: picture-alliance/epa/D. Calma

Restrained EU, Germany

Thus far, the European Union has reacted cautiously. On Tuesday, the bloc's foreign affairs chief, Federica Mogherini, called on leaders in Tehran to respect freedom of assembly and freedom of opinion. "The European Union is closely following ongoing demonstrations in Iran, the increasing violence and the unacceptable loss of human lives," she said. Freedom of assembly and expression, Mogherini explained, are fundamental rights that must be guaranteed in every country, without exception. She also called on all parties to avoid the use of violence.

The choice of words was similar in Berlin. "The German government is following developments in Iran with concern, especially reports of deaths and numerous arrests," said deputy spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer on Wednesday. She went on to say that the government in Tehran should react to the protests "with a willingness to enter dialogue." The German government, added Demmer, finds it "legitimate for people to courageously make their economic and political concerns public, just as they are doing right now in Iran."

On New Year's Day, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lampooned Europe's restraint. "Sadly, many European governments watch in silence as heroic young Iranians are beaten in the streets," he said during a video address. "Brave Iranians are pouring into the streets. They seek freedom. They seek justice. They seek the basic liberties that have been denied to them for decades."

Future of the nuclear deal uncertain

Trump, meanwhile, is planning to pile more pressure on Iran in the coming week: He is due to make the first in a series of decisions mandated by Congress on certifying the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Trump chose to decertify the agreement last October. That move gave Congress a 60-day window to put sanctions against Iran back into place. Massive European lobbying temporarily stopped that from happening and the deal has thus far remained intact. This time around, however, the political situation looks rather less favorable for the survival of the nuclear deal.