Europe is in the Islamic Republic’s political bones. From Ayatollah Khomeini’s high-profile exile in a Paris suburb, to Europe's defence of Salman Rushdie and alarm over Iran-backed assassinations, to the current crisis over a nuclear program originally built by Europeans, Iran’s modern history is inflected by European encounters. European governments have been among the most persistent critics of Iran’s human rights record, and Europe is home to a large section of the Iranian diaspora. Yet Europe has pushed for diplomacy with Iran in all but the darkest times. While a German court verdict shattered the European Union’s policy of “critical dialogue” in 1997, Europe has continued to embrace Iranian pragmatists ever since, in hope of ending Iran’s pariah status. It has yet to see lasting results.
1. Europeans helped the Shah build his nuclear program.
In the mid 1970s, Akbar Etemad, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, sought European expertise to build the Shah’s nuclear program. “The Shah had great plans for his nuclear program,” says David Patrikarakos, author of Nuclear Iran. “He wanted to build something like 20 reactors by the year 2000. During the ‘70s Iran had so much money that European suppliers were desperate to get a piece of the Iranian nuclear pie.” French and German companies, he says, both agreed to built Iran nuclear reactors. But the Shah’s ambitions alarmed the United States. “Every so often, he’d say something ambiguous about nuclear weapons. The US was concerned about proliferation, but the Europeans, while they paid lip service to those concerns, were really concerned about getting contracts.”
2. Radical French thought influenced the Iranian Revolution.
When the Shah exiled Ayatollah Khomeini from Iran in 1964, Khomeini went first to Turkey, then into Iraq, and finally to the Paris suburb of Neauphle-le-Château. While living there, he was surrounded by young Iranian intellectuals whose thinking had been shaped by European struggles. “His inner circle was influenced by the more radical left wing ideologies,” says Roberto Toscano, Italy’s former ambassador to Iran. “The first politicization of those who became the leaders was through reading Frantz Fanon, and reading about the Algerian War of Independence against France. So this French ideological debate was very important at the beginning. The revolution was a strange mix of retrograde Islam and radical European thought.”
3. Britain and France helped Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War.
Major European powers took an ostensibly neutral position over the Iran-Iraq War, but Britain and France quietly aided Saddam Hussein. Britain had been Iran’s second largest arms supplier before the revolution, but refused to deal with Iran during the war, or to supply military hardware Iran had already paid for. In 1982, however, it struck a deal with Iraq to repair Iranian Chieftain tanks that Iraq had captured from Iranian forces. France, meanwhile, delivered 60 Mirage fighter jets Iraq had agreed to buy before the war, and took a further $660 million in military orders from Iraq. France gave up any pretense to neutrality in 1982 when Foreign Minister Clause Cheysson said his government would not let Iraq lose the war.
4. The European Union pursued “critical dialogue” with Iran, despite its outrage over the Rushdie Affair.
Following the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani sought to end Iran’s isolation through diplomacy. Europe was wary, not least because of Iranian-backed attempts to murder British author Salman Rushdie and his translators on EU soil. Nevertheless, says Matthias Struwe, author of a report on EU-Iran policy published by Durham University, the EU built upon German outreach efforts dating back to the Iran-Iraq War. In 1992, it adopted a “critical dialogue” with Iran. While Rushdie's security was high on the agenda, the dialogue also addressed broader human rights questions, and Iran’s position on the Arab-Israeli peace process. It marked European leaders’ departure from the US policy of “containing” Iran. “In their perception,” Struwe says, “the policy of containment strengthened the hardliners, whereas dialogue held the door open for moderation.”
5. A German judge held Ayatollah Ali Khamenei responsible for the murder of Kurdish dissidents in Berlin.
In September 1992, Iran-backed assassins murdered three members of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan and their translator at the Mykonos restaurant in Berlin. Following a trial that lasted three and a half years, and testimony from a former senior Iranian intelligence official and exiled Iranian President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, the court found that the Iranian government was directly involved. The judge accused Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, of ordering the killings, and the prosecutor issued an international arrest warrant for Ali Fallahian, the head of Iran’s intelligence service. Germany temporarily severed diplomatic relations with Iran, as did all the other EU states. The episode, Struwe says, was a major blow to those who favored “critical dialogue.”
6. Ahmadinejad told Angela Merkel that the Holocaust was being used as an “alibi” to oppress Germany.
In July 2006, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent German Chancellor Angela Merkel a 10-page letter in which he implied Germany should throw off its postwar guilt. “The propaganda machinery after World War II has been so colossal,” he wrote, “that it has caused some people to believe that they are the guilty party and must pay the penalty.” He also referred to the Holocaust as an “alibi” that “some victorious countries of World War II” had used to weaken the morale of defeated nations and to hinder their progress. Yet curiously, in his ensuing attack on Zionism, he referred to “the survivors of the Holocaust” four times. German government spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm said that the German government had no intention of corresponding with Ahmadinejad.
7. The EU awarded Nasrin Sotoudeh and Jafar Panahi the Sakharov Prize.
In 2012, the European Parliament awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought — named after the Soviet physicist and dissident Andrei Sakharov — to Iranian lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi. The prize, which the parliament first awarded to Nelson Mandela in 1988, acknowledges contributions to the fight for human rights and democracy.
In 2010, Iranian authorities arrested Sotoudeh, who had defended activists imprisoned following Iran’s 2009 Green Movement, on charges of spreading propaganda and harming state security. They held her in solitary confinement, and at the time of the award, she was on hunger strike to protest government harassment of her family. Panahi, who was also arrested in 2010, received a 20-year ban on filmmaking, but smuggled his latest film to the 2011 Cannes Film Festival on a USB stick hidden in a cake.
8. The EU is putting nuclear negotiations ahead of human rights.
For decades, European governments have been among the most prominent critics of human rights abuses in Iran. The European Parliament issues frequent resolutions on the issue, and the EU has sanctioned Iran over human rights. But recently, the EU has put nuclear negotiations first. “Europe hasn’t been so successful on human rights because it hasn’t been pushing the issue,” says Cornelius Adebahr of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The EU is aiming for success in nuclear negotiations, and it lowered the priority for human rights.” Nevertheless, he says, there is a good argument for the current approach. “This even has support from a number of human rights activists in Iran, because without the nuclear issue being off the table, you cannot solve Iran’s pariah status.”
9. Iranian state media photoshopped Catherine Ashton to make her attire look more "Islamic".
As Iran entered new rounds of nuclear negotiations with the P5+1 group (Britain, France, the US, Russia and China, plus Germany) in 2011, Iranian state media faced a dilemma: The EU’s foreign policy chief, the British Labour Party politician Catherine Ashton, was a woman with a taste for what Iranian conservatives might consider plunging necklines. Following a meeting between Ashton and Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili in Istanbul, Iranian media retouched a photograph showing the two together to make her blouse look more concealing. As Ashton’s dress grew gradually more conservative in real life, Iranian satirists joined the game, depicting Ashton in ever less likely forms of attire, including a full chador.
10. The EU isn’t ready for “no deal”.
Current negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program represent a European foreign policy success that forestalls the possibility of a war in the Middle East, boosts international nuclear nonproliferation efforts, and puts Europe in the global limelight. But it is not ready for failure. “The EU is ill-prepared for a ‘no deal’ scenario,” says Adebahr. “It has based its efforts entirely on getting to an agreement. There are a number of open questions that will come to the fore if there is no agreement: Will there still be a unified P5+1 position? What are the Americans going to do? Where will the policy position then come from, the Europeans or the Americans? What is Iran going to do? These are questions to which Brussels has no answers. To me, it doesn’t look like the EU is prepared.”