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What the EU should do now after parliamentary elections in Iran

Conservatives won big in Iran's parliamentary elections last week. The European Union needs to engage with it.

Analysis | Middle East

As widely predicted, conservative and hardline forces made sweeping gains in Iran’s parliamentary elections last week. Although divided into different factions, their combined lists will now control 76 percent of the seats in the Majles, with their reformist opponents reduced to only 7 percent, and independents another 12 percent.

Massive disqualifications of mostly moderate and reformist candidates by the Council of Guardians, an unelected vetting body, raised doubts among the voters about the fairness of the process. As a result, elections registered the lowest turnout since the establishment of the Islamic Republic — some 42 percent, according to official data. Significantly, the lowest turnout of all (26 percent) was in the capital city of Tehran, the center of Iran’s political life.

Low turnout came despite the consistent appeals by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to electoral participation as means to bolster the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy. Although the outbreak of coronavirus may have had an impact on participation, the voters’ frustration with the system seems to be a far likelier explanation.

This rebuke, however, does not mean that the system is about to crumble. There is no evidence that Iranians are willing to compound their current woes with major and bloody disruption that a new revolution would bring. However hopeless many may feel about the prospects of reform, there is no credible alternative to the Islamic Republic in sight. The heir to the Pahlavi dynasty, the so-called “crown prince” Reza Pahlavi and Mojahedeen-e Khalk (MEK), a widely despised exiled cult, qualify as such only in febrile imagination of neoconservative schemers. Such grassroots opposition as there exists, like the association of “United Students,” both called for boycott of the elections and denounced the “corrupt monarchical opposition” on their Telegram channel.

This lack of alternatives means that the international community will have to deal with Iran as it is, not as it would like it to be. The task will become even more difficult if the conservatives, with wind in their sails, will succeed in capturing the presidency in the next year’s elections — the one institution of the state still controlled by the moderates around the President Hassan Rouhani. For all the divisions among the conservatives and focus on economic issues, it is safe to assume that their foreign policy will be more defiant towards the West. They will feel less compunction about abandoning the JCPOA for good and withdrawing Iran from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), all this accompanied by more assertive regional posturing and more repressive domestic environment.

The E3 (France, Germany, Britain) and the European Union as a whole have particular responsibility to do their utmost to prevent such a scenario from materializing. The ascendancy of the conservative camp is not a natural outcome of organic political change in Iran. It is foremost a result of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. By foolishly violating the Iran nuclear deal and re-imposing sanctions against an agreement-compliant Iran, Trump undermined Iranian moderates. They are now under assault by the conservatives for giving up the country’s nuclear program while failing to secure the corresponding sanctions relief. Rouhani has little to show for his pragmatic outreach to the West.

Conversely, the E3/EU could provide some relief to the embattled moderates by giving them ammunition to argue that engagement with the West is still worth pursuing. There is an understandable Iran fatigue in Europe, as efforts to save the nuclear deal ruthlessly exposed the limits of its power. Nevertheless, the EU still has roughly one year before the next presidential elections in Iran, which it should use wisely.

First, INSTEX, the special trade mechanism designed to bypass the extra-territorial American sanctions, has to finally become operational. More countries joined it in addition to the original E3 — Belgium, Denmark and Norway, with Sweden, Finland and Netherlands expected to follow suit. This is a welcome sign of political confidence in the mechanism, but it would remain merely a gesture if not accompanied by real action. The current outbreak of coronavirus in Iran serves as a tragic reminder of an urgency of opening at least humanitarian trade channels.

Second, the E3/EU should raise its profile through bold high-level diplomatic engagement with Iran. The recent visits of the EU high representative for foreign policy Josep Borrell and the Dutch foreign minister Stef Blok to Tehran showed that the venues for dialogue are still open. Now these visits should be complemented by the E3, together with Borrell, as advised by experts such as Adnan Tabatabai from the Germany-based CARPO think-tank.

Third, the E3/EU should revive the consultation mechanism in the format of E3 + Italy, used to discuss regional security issues with Iran, particularly Yemen. Following the UK’s formal withdrawal from the EU, Spain should be included in this format to reinforce the EU side. The talks should be extended to other crises in the region, and include maritime security in the Hormuz straits, relations with Saudi Arabia, the situations in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, and prospects for peace in Afghanistan. The European side should engage with Iran on its Hormuz Peace Endeavour (HOPE), which overlaps with the ideas expressed by Borrell on the need for regional approach to de-escalate tensions in the Persian Gulf. Such an engagement would not require any new institutional build-ups as the framework of the High Level Political Dialogue, launched after the conclusion of the Iran deal, already provides for it.

Fourth, the EU should engage with the new Iranian parliament. Lumping all conservatives together, ignoring genuine differences between them, is not helpful. For example, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, a former mayor of Tehran and perennial presidential candidate, has occasionally displayed a pragmatist streak. He is now touted as a possible new speaker of the chamber. Institutions like the European Parliament accrued significant experience in inter-parliamentary diplomacy, and it should be further used to take political temperature in Tehran.

These steps will not endear the EU to the current American administration that seeks to isolate Iran. Yet, if ever there was an occasion to beef up the narrative of the EU as a global player, the Iranian case presents clear opportunity. The time has come for the EU to act.

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the S&D Group and the European Parliament.

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