Going “Soft” on Iran

BRUSSELS – 2010 will be a crucial and uncertain year for the Islamic Republic of Iran – and for its relations with the European Union. The domestic hostility towards the regime that erupted in the aftermath of the disputed presidential elections last June has not died away, but has become stronger and more determined.

The Ashura riots of last December and the violent suppression of protests during the recent anniversary to mark the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution were some of the fiercest to date. The regime’s sharp crackdown ahead of the anniversary did not stop thousands from marching in the streets, despite the threat of swift retribution. The likelihood of more arrests, trials, and bloodshed is a concern for many in the international community.

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More ominously, following riots the regime put 16 opposition members on trial for taking part in the demonstrations, with prosecutors indicating that some would be charged with the offense of mohareb , or “making a war against God” – a capital crime.

The heavy-handed approach adopted by the regime is causing friction among even its loyalists. A former member of Iran’s parliament, Javad Ettaat, argues that the “government is contravening the principles of Islam by using an iron fist against protesters.” Mohammad Taghi Khalaji, a cleric and devoted follower of Ayatollah Khomeini, was arrested on January 12 after saying at a Tehran mosque that Iran’s leaders should repent for their actions.

Moreover, an Iranian diplomat in Oslo, Mohammed Reza Heydari, resigned in protest against the regime’s behavior after the December riots. Other Iranian diplomats also are reportedly resigning from their posts and seeking asylum abroad.

The European Parliament has been paying close attention to the deteriorating situation in Iran. There has been pressure to impose targeted sanctions aimed at impeding the financial operations of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, which holds a virtual monopoly over strategic industries such as banking, defense and construction. Many European companies have profited from investing in such firms, which means deciding on the terms of sanctions could prove cumbersome.

On the issue of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the Iranian government’s equivocal position also is a source of growing concern. Many European lawmakers are worried by the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran on Europe’s doorstep, and are not convinced by the regime’s claim that it seeks only nuclear energy.

It is critical, therefore, that the EU demonstrate its commitment to the Iranian people through actions, rather than words – a complaint that many Iranians level against Western powers – by taking a tougher stance against the regime. Targeted sanctions aimed at the Revolutionary Guard would be an important step, but so is clearly expressing solidarity with the millions of Iranian men and women who are fighting for a democratic and pluralist society.

Europe should stand with Iran's civil society, and the European Parliament has already paid tribute to the courage of all those Iranian men and women who are defending their basic freedoms and democratic principles. A concrete demonstration of its commitment is the request to make better use of the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights.

Eighty MEPs, including the Parliament’s former president, Hans-Gert Pöttering, and former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, are urging the Parliament to honor its commitment to human rights by remembering the life of Neda Agha Soltan, the young woman who was killed last June in Tehran while standing up for her rights. We believe that the European Parliament should commemorate her sacrifice by hanging a poster of her image on the external wall of the Parliament’s premises in Brussels, beside the poster of Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Burma’s democratic opposition.

Agha Soltan has become the symbol of the desire for freedom of a people that Europe must help. This simple act could demonstrate the importance of Europe’s soft power, which frightens the Islamic Republic more than the threat of military force by keeping the media spotlight on the regime’s human rights record and emphasizing its growing isolation. It would also foster stronger ties between Iran’s civil society and the outside world, while setting an example to the international community that the EU is committed to the principles enshrined in its own Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Europe’s policy for Iran is not regime change, but when human rights and democracy are at stake, we cannot simply close our eyes.