December 17, 2020 — Paris, France
This piece originally appeared in Le Figaro.
Iranian journalist and opposition figure Rouhollah Zam was executed in Iran last Saturday. He had lived in France for several years, obtained refugee status and was protected by the French security services. However, while on his way to Iraq in October 2019, he was arrested and later sentenced to death by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard under obscure circumstances.
A tragic coincidence: Two days after the execution, France, Italy, Austria and Germany were supposed to participate in the Iran-Europe Business Forum. Called a "barbaric" act by several European governments, Zam's execution led European countries to immediately cancel their participation.
However, using the hashtag #nobusinessasusual, the cancellation was the strict minimum any democratic society could have done to protest this flagrant and unacceptable violation of human rights.
This response falls short in addressing the daily reality of Iranian citizens, who have suffered under the regime’s systematic human rights violations since coming to power after the 1979 Islamic revolution. Over a 40-year period, the Revolutionary Guard has arrested or executed more than 860 journalists.
Europe and the United States must embody the values they proclaim to defend. The response must be in proportion to the situation’s seriousness. We must acknowledge the policies and nature of the regime and pursue a concerted, systematic effort defending human rights and taking the regime for what it is. Doing so is all the more important as Iran does not hesitate to challenge Europe on its own soil. Currently, four Iranians are standing trial in Antwerp, Belgium for a thwarted 2018 attack against a group of Iranian dissidents in France. Among the defendants is an Iranian diplomat, Assadollah Assadi, accused of organizing the operation while he was officially holding a post at the Iranian embassy in Vienna. The diplomat also was an agent of the intelligence ministry, receiving his orders directly from Ayatollah Khameinei.
With the arrival of the new Biden administration, Iran is once again becoming a priority in both Europe and the United States. All signs point to the Biden administration pushing for a new initiative to save the Iran nuclear deal, reversing Donald Trump’s policy of maximum pressure.
However, by executing Rouhalla Zam, Tehran belies one of the agreement’s underlying assumptions: That the Islamic Republic of Iran is ultimately a rational actor that can be a peaceful partner if only it is integrated into a system of multilateral dialogue.
A few years ago, the EU’s tendency to conciliate would probably have triumphed. Europe has done everything to save the nuclear deal since the Trump administration’s withdrawal. This despite the many indicators that Tehran's intentions were to continue their quest for regional hegemony, develop their military nuclear arsenal, and support terrorist groups such as Hezbollah.
But today Europeans may have learned from past experience. Indeed, the prospect of changing Tehran's policy through accommodation, as hoped during the Obama years, has already proven to be a disappointment. The Iranian position is determined neither by President Rouhani, nor by another so-called "moderate" wing, but by the same forces that executed Ruhollah Zam.
Those who are lenient only reinforce such policy. That is why European countries, in cooperation with the United States, must stand firm in their opposition and take an approach that reflects our strategic interests, convictions, and values.
In the negotiations to come, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has called for a tougher stance towards Iran, stating that a mere return to the Vienna agreement "will not be enough." The decision to have a "no business as usual" approach by cancelling participation in the business forum is a step in the right direction. It is hopeful sign of consistency, which is generally the most effective foreign policy principle to follow.
If Europe truly wants to defend its values, if it does not want a destabilizing Iran that threatens the region and world, it is necessary for this coherent stance to be upheld and acted upon.
Simone Rodan-Benzaquen is Director of AJC Europe.