Déjà Vu in Iran-EU Relations

Bilgehan Alagöz Senior Expert

Although the Rushdie issue and the Mykonos assassinations created a crisis between Iran and Europe in the past, Europe has chosen diplomacy, and it has a similar tendency today to save the Nuclear Deal.

The European states, the pioneers of the nuclear negotiations, which started between Iran and the P4+1 countries in April 2021, have been recently tested in two major issues regarding Iran. One of these is the stabbing of Salman Rushdie, the author of The Satanic Verses, by a Lebanese man named Hadi Matar on August 12, 2022, at a conference in New York, USA. The other one is the death of Mahsa Amini on September 16, 2022, after the alleged ill-treatment she was exposed to during her detention and the violent attitude of Iran against the protests that followed. Even though the Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson denied the accusations in a press statement regarding the Rushdie incident by saying that the incident has no connection with Iran, Matar, who committed the crime, is a child of a family who migrated to the USA from a city under the control of Iran-backed Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon, close to the Israeli border, and it strengthened the claims that the incident was related to Iran. Regarding Amini’s death, on the other hand, state officials stated from the very beginning that Amini died due to health problems she had and that she had never been subjected to violence. 

It is not possible for European countries, which are highly sensitive to issues of democracy, human rights, and women's rights, to remain silent about Iran's violations of these issues. On the other hand, their desire to successfully conclude the nuclear negotiation process, which they put great effort into, requires a careful attitude. Nevertheless, it is getting more and more difficult for European countries to maintain this cautious attitude in the process. Despite the fact that diplomatic initiatives that Europe desired to establish with Iran were interrupted in the past due to the "Rushdie Fatwa" and the "Mykonos assassinations”, Europe has prioritized not breaking relations with Iran. Considering this fact, it is possible to ask whether a similar process is taking place now. At this point, it would be helpful to examine these two incidents, which occupy a significant place in Iran-Europe relations, to point out their similarities and differences with the current process.

The Rushdie Issue

The book named The Satanic Verses, written by the British-Indian writer Rushdie is not just an ordinary publication but a subject that has turned into a vital issue between Iran and Europe. After the release of the book in the UK on September 1988, Muslims living in India started a campaign against the book. As a result, on October 5, 1988, the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs banned publishing it. Iran was involved in the process after the demonstrations in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, on February 12, 1989. Two days later, on February 14, 1989, Khomeini issued a fatwa directly targeting Rushdie and declared the murder of the author and the owner of the publishing house as an Islamic duty for every Muslim. The 15 Khordad Foundation also promised to give a $1 million reward to the person who would murder Rushdie. Thus, the order to kill a citizen of a European state turned into an issue between Iran and Europe. 

The timing of the relevant crisis was critical. In this period, European countries, especially the United Kingdom, were willing to normalize the relations with Iran that had been tense since the Revolution. In December 1988, the British diplomatic mission returned to Tehran, and similarly, other European countries resumed their relations with Iran. Although the British Prime Minister of the time, Margaret Thatcher, remained silent for a week, she had to withdraw diplomatic missions and decided to sever the relations with Iran. Then, at the European Economic Community (EEC) Foreign Ministers meeting held on February 20, 1989, it was decided to withdraw the mission chiefs of all EEC member states in Tehran, and relations were reduced to the lowest level.

The Mykonos Assassinations

The period of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was elected president after Khomeini's death, became an era of hope for Europe regarding their relations with Iran. Rafsanjani created a moderate atmosphere with his statement that the Rushdie fatwa is an Islamic issue and it is not an element that determines relations with other countries. Based on this, on September 27, 1990, the United Kingdom decided to review its relationship with Iran, and on October 1990, the EEC Summit determined to engage in closer relations with Iran. 

The incident that damaged the optimistic atmosphere between Iran and European countries was the murder of four high-ranking Kurdish-origin Iranian separatist leaders in a Greek restaurant called Mykonos in Berlin on September 17, 1992. Despite the sensitivity of the German public, Germany has taken a cautious attitude towards Iran. Because at that time, Germany started significant trade relations with Iran, and leading German companies such as Siemens, Mannesmann, Krupp, and Daimler-Benz had made crucial investments in the country. 

In line with all these, the EEC member states decided to re-establish relations with Iran at the Edinburgh Summit in December 1992 by starting the "Critical Dialogue” process. The main purpose of the critical dialogue, which marked a new era in the relations between the EEC and Iran, was to reintegrate Iran into the system through persuasion and trust as an important regional power instead of excluding it from the international system.

Current Situation

The attack against Rushdie in the USA on August 12, 2022, can be interpreted as repeating history. Indeed, the relevant incident happened when there was an intense diplomatic process between the European Union (EU) and Iran, just like the time of the two incidents mentioned above. The incident took place only four days after the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, delivered the final draft text to the parties on August 8, after 16 months of indirect negotiations between the USA and Iran. That is why the European countries almost ignored this event, and Borrell only shared the following message on Twitter: “International rejection of such criminal actions, which violate fundamental rights and freedoms, is the only path towards a better and more peaceful world.” Thus, by not including a statement against Iran, he showed that the main focus of the EU is the draft text that goes back and forth between Iran and the USA and the process of inspection and investigation of nuclear facilities between the International Atomic Energy Agency and Iran.

The suspicious death of Amini and Iran's harsh stance towards the protests that started afterward made it difficult for the EU to remain silent. In this context, on September 25, the European Council made a statement regarding the events in Iran. In the text, Iranian authorities are invited to strictly abide by the principles of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a party. Furthermore, it is stated that Iran is expected to immediately stop the violent crackdown on the protesters and provide free information flow and internet access. The EU underlined that otherwise, it will continue to consider all options at its disposal before the next Foreign Ministers meeting to address the killing of Amini and the way Iranian security forces have responded to the subsequent demonstrations.

According to the information leaked to the German media on October 3, Germany, France, Denmark, Spain, Italy, and the Czech Republic suggested new EU sanctions against Iran to stop the violations of women's rights since Iran has kept its harsh stance in the following weeks. Accordingly, the proposed sanctions target 16 individuals, institutions, and organizations primarily responsible for restrictions on nationwide protests. This statement was remarkable because the EU, which last imposed human rights sanctions on Iran in 2021 but has not added any Iranian names to this list since 2013, stated that it is considering imposing sanctions on the authorities this time. It shows that the developments after the Amini incident cannot be ignored. Subsequently, on October 6, the European Parliament condemned Iran for its crackdown on women's rights protesters. It is expected that the EU will implement the sanctions against Iran following the Ministers' meeting on October 17.

So, what does all this mean when the Rushdie fatwa and the Mykonos assassinations are taken into account? Europe, which cared about the integration of Iran into the international system through diplomacy in the 90s, focused on not breaking the dialogue with Iran despite all the difficulties experienced. It is possible to say that there is a similar situation today. First of all, the EU is geopolitically stuck, especially after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The first reflection of this situation has manifested itself through the energy need and the refugee problem. Therefore, the rupture between the international community and Iran, which is already in a major crisis, would grow further with the impact of the non-revival of the Nuclear Deal, and Iran would advance its nuclear threshold status. The deepening and growth of the crisis on the issue could pose a more serious threat to world peace and stability in Europe. For this reason, the priority of the EU is to revive the Nuclear Deal. 

Iran, however, benefits from rising oil prices despite the economic sanctions and lessens its economy problems thanks to the strategic relations it has established with Russia and China. This situation reduces the need for Iran to return to the Nuclear Deal. It increases the necessity for the EU to raise its voice in the face of Iran's violations of human rights and women's rights. Indeed, the EU aims to force Iran out of its current comfort zone by using the new sanctions trump card and thus, encourages it to focus on the Nuclear Deal under all circumstances. Therefore, it is possible to argue that just like in the 90s, the EU will continue to raise its voice against human rights and democracy violations, but it will be proportionate. By doing so, the EU seeks to direct Iran towards diplomacy and ultimately, the Nuclear Deal.

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