Europe Must Support the Revolution in Iran
by Saeed Ghasseminejad
In March, in response to “continued obstruction” from Tehran, the United Kingdom, Germany, and France shut down INSTEX, a payment mechanism to facilitate trade with Iran and keep the 2015 nuclear deal alive. One might expect that after this step, the European Union would finally put the agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in the grave and go on offense.
But Josep Borrell, the formal head of the EU’s foreign policy, still claims that a return to the JCPOA is the best option for Europe, and argues against designating the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist entity. Borrel is wrong, but represents a dominant opinion among European decision-makers, who still back a policy that doesn’t deter the Islamic Republic’s nuclear or regional ambitions. This approach needs to change.
A real alternative to the failed appeasement policy, which Europe has been experimenting with since France and Germany began diplomatic engagement with Tehran in the early 1990s, is to back the revolutionary movement in Iran. Since December 2017, the Islamic Republic has seen three waves of widespread protests, with smaller waves happening in between. During these years, the protests have become more widespread, more frequent, more organized, and more forceful. The largest and most resilient eruption followed the regime’s murder of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in September 2022, for allegedly wearing her headscarf improperly. These are all signs of an revolutionary movement in Iran.
The fuel for the rebellion is the structural shortcomings of the Islamic Republic and its incapacity to reform itself. The Islamic Republic treats women as legally inferior to men, and uses violence to enforce Sharia law. It has created four decades of two-digit inflation, slow growth, a real GDP per capita still lower than it was in 1977, and significant unemployment, especially for the youth.
The future of Iran-EU economic relations is also dark. EU-Iran trade is not significant, around 5 billion euros, and Tehran is backing Moscow in its war against Ukraine by sending Russia weapons and trainers. Furthermore, the nuclear saga, especially the US withdrawal from the JCPOA in 2018, has taught European companies that Iran is not a safe haven for their investment. Tehran too has learned that it cannot rely on European companies as a shield against US sanctions.
Despite having significant oil and gas reserves, Iran has not become a reliable source of energy for Europe, due to its aggressive foreign policy. The regime’s regional aggression threatens the safe transfer of energy resources from the Persian Gulf to Europe. And Tehran has shown its willingness to target energy facilities in the region. In 2021, European Union had 113 billion euros in trade with Persian Gulf countries. But Tehran’s aggression has increased the risk of trade and investment in the region for Europe. Despite the Islamic Republic’s recent rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, its track record strongly suggests that the risk will remain.
Tehran’s adventures are also not limited to the Middle East. Iranian-made drones are targeting Ukrainian cities, and the transfer of Iranian missiles to Russia is a serious possibility. The Islamic Republic’s missile program, which can now deploy projectiles capable of reaching European cities, is now a serious issue for Europe.
The dynamic of the EU-Iran relationship could quickly change in favor of cooperation if the regime in Tehran falls. In fact, the EU could facilitate the Islamic Republic’s collapse by pursuing a campaign of maximum pressure on the regime and maximum support for the Iranian people.
On the pressure side, the EU should trigger the JCPOA’s snapback process to reimpose international sanctions; expand its sanctions to target key conglomerates and industries; crack down on Tehran’s use of the European financial system; ban regime officials and their families from entering the EU zone; designate the IRGC as a terrorist entity; and close down the network of cultural and Islamic centers that Tehran has created in Europe to expand its influence.
On the support side, the EU should help Iranians by creating a strike and protests fund to support demonstrators and laborers who want to go on strike. The EU should also support efforts to connect Iranians to non-censored internet by creating a free internet fund.
The continuation of the EU’s current Iran policy will lead to a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic. Maximum pressure on the regime and maximum support for the Iranian people is a plausible alternative. Europeans have everything to gain by trying.
Dr. Saeed Ghasseminejad is a senior Iran and financial economics advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), specializing in Iran’s economy and financial markets, sanctions, and illicit finance.