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COMMENTARY - EU Should Wake Up And Help Real Change In Iran

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini (left) and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attend a ministerial meeting of the P5+1 countries and Iran held on the sidelines of the 73rd session of the UN General Assembly.

The principal reason European officials think that forging financial ties with Iran will change the behavior of the Islamic Republic is the belief that helping a stable but dictatorial state is better than taking a risk hearing the voices of millions of Iranians calling for structural change.

There are many metaphors and allegories for the problems in Iran and the multiple threats it poses to global security, but as we pen this commentary we cannot help but think of one specific image: an empty train station with 28 passengers waiting on a platform for a train that will never arrive. These 28 passengers are the member states of the European Union, and the awaited train is their desire for normal relations with what can only be called a theocratic dictatorship.

It’s understandable that Europe wants a peaceful bond with Iran. Right at its doorstep is a huge market with a population of nearly 80

million people of mostly young age. It is one of the few countries in the Middle East with an industrial base and vast natural resources. Trade with Iran could benefit both Iran’s economy as well as help Europe with its high energy needs.

In an ideal situation, both partners would have a lot to gain from close economic ties, but that is exactly what is wrong with current European policy -- it is not the ideal situation.

Instead of changing things for the better, cooperation with Tehran is contributing to an already existing disaster: a wave of immigrants in need of refuge coming to Europe as they flee conflicts generated by the destabilization of the Middle East and an Iranian nation that wants to live up to its potential but is denied that inalienable right under the current system.

Iran’s is a government that first and foremost terrorizes its own people, restricts simple freedoms, plunders the nation's wealth, has

one of the worst records of human rights abuses in the world, and has sought nothing but destruction in the Middle East. It is therefore, in large part, responsible for the most challenging issue facing Europe today: the refugee crisis. Iran has fanned the flames of war in Syria, one of the most violent proxy-conflicts witnessed in the 21st century that has led to one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent memory.

Tehran is responsible for perpetuating the conflicts in Syria and Yemen, the latter of which according to the UN is on the brink of the world’s worst famine in 100 years while Iran is busy funding proxy terrorist groups as they seek to gain sectarian control of the region through conflict -- all at the expense of its own people and the escalation of bloodshed and terrorism in the region and beyond.

All the while, people at home chant anti-regime slogans saying, “No to Gaza and Lebanon,” calling for the government to think of the struggling Iranian people for a change. Some Iranians have not received wages for months and are having a hard time providing even the most basic necessities for their families as the government plunders, wastes, and pockets the nation's vast wealth and natural resources.

While Europe worries that it is unable to handle more mass migration,

it continues to seek to contain a regime that is complicit in the atrocities taking place in Syria and Yemen. If it continues with its current policies, destabilization of the European continent looks more likely as the migration of people fleeing conflict in search of refuge will only increase.

Maybe European officials think their doctrine of containment will change Iran in the long run, believing it will one day reform. Maybe Europe wants to balance the current policies of the United States by continuing to lend its political support for the Iran nuclear deal from

which the United States recently withdrew. But this desire of reform within the current system in Iran, however hopeful the Europeans may be, however long they are willing to wait, and no matter how much economic help and political support they are willing to throw at the problem, is misconceived. It derives from thinking that helping a stable but dictatorial state is better than hearing the voice of millions of Iranians calling for structural change. Yet the latter is evolving on a daily basis -- even as Europe seems unwilling to hear, or find a way to support, that voice.

Under the current administration of President Hassan Rouhani, considered a “moderate” and reformist, execution rates have increased, with more people executed in the first 14 months of his presidency than during the previous hard-line president’s entire time in office. The executions continue as Europe prides itself on being the only political body to have a ‘dialogue’ with Iran on its human rights abuses, but this is a dialogue that has clearly made little difference. Europe is focusing its energy and ability to listen on the wrong issues from the wrong people.

Iranian protestors shout slogans as they gather at a street close to the Bazaar in Tehran, Iran, 25 June 2018
Iranian protestors shout slogans as they gather at a street close to the Bazaar in Tehran, Iran, 25 June 2018

As the re-imposed U.S. sanctions become the new policy of applying “maximum pressure” on Tehran, many European companies and banks have stopped doing business with Iran. More than any political pressure, it is business logic that prevails: The bigger market always comes first. Contrary to some comments, European private-sector businesses were not pressured to cease trade with Iran, but they have been given a choice -- and they chose the larger market, the United States.

The European Union has a choice, too. It can realize that another train is departing -- one that lets trans-Atlantic unity evolve to deal with one of the largest dangers for both continents -- and it should get on board on the right side of history. The EU is powerful enough to

formulate its own doctrine without relying on the United States, but it should be with the aim of traveling in the same direction. Otherwise, it can continue to stand by itself in vain on the platform of containing Iran. The train headed toward peaceful and prosperous relations under the current conditions will never reach its destination.

Genuine change in Iran is inevitable because it is the only way to a free, secular, and democratic country. Four decades after the Islamic Revolution we, alongside the 80 percent of Iranians under the age of 40, envision a time in the not-too-distant future when peaceful ties and prosperous relations between a modern Iran and other open societies will no longer be a dream but a reality. Iran’s civil society already holds such values close to their hearts. The question remains, however: Will Europe choose to keep containing the government of Iran, or will it choose to pro-actively listen and act by the voices of the Iranian people?

Saba Farzan, Dena Ziari, Amir Etemadi, and Damon Golriz are founding members of Farashgard (Iran Revival), an international network of Iranians advocating democracy, human rights, and secularism in Iran.

The views expressed in this commentary are the authors’ own and do not necessarily represent those of RFE/RL.