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How Europe is dealing with Iran’s new hardline president

Expectations are low but there will be room for cooperation, particularly if both sides focus on essential interests.

Analysis | Middle East

The election of the conservative chief justice Ebrahim Raisi as the president of Iran — in a process that was neither free nor fair even by the standards of the Islamic Republic — was met with an official silence in most European capitals.

There has been no public record of any major European leader congratulating him with his election victory. The EU high representative for foreign policy, Josep Borrell, only briefly referred to it in remarks at the beginning of the EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on June 21. He expressed hope that the new Iranian administration will be committed to the revival of the nuclear agreement, or JCPOA. Borrell emphasized that this was the EU’s main interest in relations with Iran.

Seen from this optic, Raisi’s election would not likely prove to be an insurmountable obstacle. He is often described as an “ultra-conservative”, “hardliner”, “extremist” or “religious zealot.” A more accurate description would be a loyalist to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, a traditional principlist and a conservative. The insights he offered on his foreign policy thinking during a press conference on June 21 strongly suggest continuity with the current course.

Thus, Raisi echoed statements made by Khamenei and other officials, including the outgoing moderate president Hassan Rouhani, that the JCPOA is to be fully restored, and the lifting of the U.S. sanctions against Iran are the precondition for that to happen.

He flatly ruled out any concessions on Iran’s ballistic missiles and support for regional proxies and allies. This position reflects a long-standing consensus in the Iranian diplomatic-security establishment that sees them as essential deterrence tools against Iran’s regional adversaries — chiefly, Israel, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates.

When Raisi was asked whether he would meet with President Joe Biden after the sanctions are lifted, he declined as expected. However, he also signaled Iran’s openness to interaction with other countries, including in Europe, a position that fits faithfully into the supreme leader’s vision.

These signs, however, do not imply that EU engagement with Iran will not become harder under Raisi. The nuclear deal might be reinstated by the time Raisi officially assumes the presidency in August. In this case it will be delivered by the outgoing foreign minister Javad Zarif’s team. Pending the staffing of key national security positions in the Raisi administration, the question is whether a new team will be as competent as the outgoing one in implementing the deal and diplomatic dialogue with the Western counterparts — the United States, E3 (France, Britain, Germany), and EU represented by Borrell.

One of the names consistently mentioned as a potential new foreign minister is Hossein Amir Abdollahian, who served as a Zarif’s deputy and was widely seen as an IRGC man in the foreign ministry. Later he became the diplomatic adviser of the speaker of the Majles, a moderate principlist Ali Larijani. Abdollahian is seen as someone tough but pragmatic on the regional issues. He had contacts with the Western diplomats too, notably when he discussed the Middle Eastern issues with the British officials in London in 2015.

Other names reportedly under consideration include a former deputy secretary of the Supreme National Security Council Ali Bagheri, well-known to the European nuclear negotiators. The prospect the European diplomats dread the most is a return to some influential diplomatic role of Saeid Jalili, the chief negotiator under the president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Jalili was a presidential candidate in the most recent elections and boasted that he had a plan that would “make the enemy beg us.” His ideological dogmatism alienated even some conservatives in Iran. Whoever is appointed as the new foreign minister, European diplomats will likely miss Zarif and his team.

Another reason that might complicate relations with Tehran is the image of the president-elect. His involvement in mass executions of the political prisoners in 1980s and recent role in the repressive judiciary of the Islamic Republic created a highly unfavorable public opinion. Amnesty International called for an investigation of Raisi for crimes against humanity. 

Whatever their official rhetoric, however, European governments never had any qualms in dealing with the regimes with atrocious human rights records, such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, or Egypt. Preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and doing so in a diplomatic way surely qualifies as a European strategic interest of the first order. That is the reason why the EU engaged with Ahmadinejad even after the bloody suppression of the “Green movement” following his fraudulent re-election in 2009.

Conversely, the Rouhani-Zarif team’s more moderate line did not bring Iran tangible benefits from Europe: not only did the E3/EU fail to effectively stand up to Trump’s “maximum pressure,” but they also periodically harangued Iran for its destabilizing role in the region, while being complicit, through arms sales, in Saudi and Emirati war crimes in Yemen. Iran’s domestic politics may make EU engagement harder, but it won’t prevent it.

On another key EU interest — de-escalation of tensions in the Persian Gulf — the Raisi administration could actually be in a better position to deliver than its predecessor because its foreign policy will be run more in sync with the deeper security establishment, including the Revolutionary Guards, traditionally influential in setting Iran’s regional relations. In his June 21 press conference, Raisi built on recent talks with Saudi Arabia, setting a constructive tone for further efforts.   

Where much progress should not be expected is in “soft” areas such as people-to-people contacts and academic, educational, and cultural exchanges, as well as dialogue on human rights. Conservatives like Raisi traditionally see such engagement with the West as opening up to hostile cultural infiltration that would erode the values of the Islamic Republic.

Therefore, such projects as opening an EU office in Tehran would probably have to wait for better times. Still, there is no reason for the EU not to try to expand selective sectorial cooperation, such as fighting environmental degradation and drug trafficking, as well as assisting the Afghan refugees in the country.

It would be unwise to expect EU-Iran relations to flourish under the Raisi presidency. That said, the EU should assess the incoming administration on its own merits, focus on the essential interests, such as a revival of the JCPOA and regional de-escalation, and explore spaces for cooperation in other, “non-political” areas.

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

European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell speaks at a news conference after an EU Foreign Ministers meeting in Brussels, Belgium on February 22, 2021. (Photo: Alexandros Michailidis via shutterstock.com)
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