A conference on the Middle East co-hosted by the US State Department and Poland was an important event focused on Iran’s theocratic regime and its malign activities in the region. Called “ Promoting a Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East”, the event brought together the US and some of its allies in an attempt to increase pressure on Iran’s regime. Coincidently, on the first day of the event more than 20 Republican Guard soldiers were killed in a bomb attack in the south-east of Iran, according to the state news agency. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on his Twitter account tried to blame the US and its allies for the attack, as did the pro-regime English-language Press TV. Last, month Iran’s exiled prince Reza Pahlavi predicted that the regime would create a military confrontation in the region with the aim of derailing the growing domestic awakening inside the country. The Iranian government expressed its dissatisfaction with the conference in advance, summoning the Polish ambassador in January.
The conference also focused on missile proliferation, Iran’s destabilizing role in the region and support for the Iranian peoples’ democratic aspirations. US Vice-President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and President Trump’s advisers Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt represented the Trump administration at the gathering. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the foreign ministers of Sunni Arab countries also took part in the event. Interestingly, this conference featured the first meeting of high representatives of Israeli-Arab states on a security issue since the Madrid conference in 1991.
Understandably, regional countries in the Middle East share a common concern in the face of Iranian expansionist policies. President Trump’s Iran policy is sharply focused on changing the international attitude towards the regime by rolling back the Islamic Republic’s regional influence and forcing it to abandon its missile as well as nuclear program through a combination of the following: terminating the JCPOA Nuclear Agreement, sanctioning Iran’s oil industry and forging a unified front of regional allies against the Iranian regime. The US indicated it was going to widen sanctions on Iran’s oil exports in May. Washington announced that it would not grant any waivers to its sanctions regime. Brian Hook, the US special representative on Iran, said in an interview to Bloomberg last month: “We’ve been able to achieve a lot of economic pressure on Iran. Eighty percent of their revenues come from oil exports. We want to deny the Iranian regime the revenue that it uses to destabilize the Middle East.” After putting sanctions on Iran’s oil industry, the Trump administration exempted eight countries from the sanctions allowing them to carry on crude oil import from Iran up to May. The JCPOA agreement did not address Iran’s regional militaristic policies or its missile testing. President Trump made it clear that his abandonment of the agreement was based upon Iran’s malign and subversive activities, missile testing and launching programs.
Earlier this month, the Islamic Republic celebrated its 40th anniversary. Over the past 40 years the Iranian leadership has failed the country in multiple ways – on the economy, environment, freedom of speech and other liberties. The regime’s oppressive policies have created disastrous consequences for Iran internationally.
EU NEEDS TO MODIFY ITS POLICY ON IRAN
Despite the fact the USA’s Middle Eastern allies are supportive of Trump’s policy on Iran, the European Union still upholds the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. The EU prefers to do business and trade with the regime, turning a blind eye towards Iran’s malign activities in the region and to a certain extent in Europe. The agreement between the EU and Iran to circumvent US-imposed sanctions is evident that Brussels is unwilling to change the current policy. Federica Mogherini, the EU foreign affairs chief, boycotted the Polish Summit due to Europe’s differences with Washington on Iran policy.
The United States has been trying to bring the EU into alignment with its policy on Iran. Last year, the Islamic Republic was accused by Denmark of a terror plot against an activist. The Dutch government also accused Iran’s intelligence ministry of involvement in two assassination plots in the Netherlands. The French authorities noticed similar activities in Paris as well. This forced the European Union to impose sanctions on Iran’s intelligence ministry. This will not be enough to prevent future terror attacks in Europe by the Islamic regime.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has slammed Brussels for doing business with Iran, comparing the stance to the 1938 policy of appeasement of Nazi Germany. Brussels risks widening its rift with America as the latter is preparing to stop the waivers to various countries that allow them to continuing importing crude oil from Iran.
The EU should alter its policy and make defending human rights inside Iran a centre piece of its foreign policy. The union should adopt a single, united policy to support the people of Iran and their rights and to provide all necessary assistance to the democratic opposition movements. Otherwise, if it continues its current stance, Brussels might embolden the regime as it circumvents economic pressure imposed by the US.
REGIONAL COOPERATION BETWEEN ISRAEL & GULF STATES
The Islamic Republic’s expansionist policies in the wider Middle East are a shared security issue for Israel and the Sunni Arab states. Aggressive sectarianism has become a useful tool to advance the regime’s agenda and bolster its survival. By establishing direct footholds in Syria, in Lebanon via Hezbollah and in Iraq via Hashd el Shaabi, the ayatollahs’ main goal is to use these groups as sticks or weapons, which in turn protect it from becoming a direct target for the US and its allies. This enables the regime to maintain “legitimacy” while pursuing hegemony in the region.
Barack Obama’s main argument was that the Iranian regime’s attitude could be changed if it was integrated into the international community. This has turned out to be false. The nature of the regime cannot be changed as it is rooted in the aggressive sectarian interpretation of Khomeini. However, the regime has successfully deceived the international community into thinking that it is not a homogenous entity and that there are some “moderates” within its establishment. Secondly, the expansionist policies help it to divert public attention from its disastrous domestic policies. It serves the regime’s interests at home to create “enemies” in the shape of Israel and Saudi Arabia and to have intense confrontations with them. Israeli airstrikes on IRGC targets in Syria are another sign that Supreme Leader Khamenei has chosen confrontation over the national interests of Iran. In the long term, Saudi Arabia and Israel should cooperate with Iranian democratic movements in order to confront the Islamic Republic’s influence in the Middle East.
PUBLIC DEMONSTRATIONS & SHIFTING INTERNAL DYNAMICS
For many years the Iranian clerical regime sustained its existence by playing a reformist versus conservative game on the international stage. The current president, Hassan Rouhani, and his foreign minister were branded ‘reformists’ and people with whom the international community could work and make deals. That was one of the arguments prior to the signing of the 2015 JCPOA agreement.
In fact, the Islamic regime is facing multiple crises on its 40th anniversary. The economy is in ruins and the country is facing social problems, environmental issues and political tensions with regional and Western countries. Inflation has skyrocketed, unemployment has soared and companies are unable to pay wages, showing that the economic situation is close to unbearable. And yet, the regime continues its military adventures abroad. Participants in the public protests in December 2017 and January 2018 condemned the regime’s policies of financing extremist groups and the Syrian dictatorship, chanting “not Gaza, not Lebanon, my life for Iran”. In January this year, students of Iran’s Azad University organized public protests demanding the authorities be held accountable for mismanagement following a bus crash, which resulted in the deaths of more than 10 students. The protestors frequently chanted “Death to the Dictator”. Iran’s universities have always been crucial elements in revolutions, so the clerical establishment seem especially afraid of student protest. Iran is witnessing public demonstrations almost on a daily basis by truck drivers, farmers, factory workers and others against the regime’s failed economic policies, corruption and lack of accountability. Iranian social media users launched the hashtag IraniansWantRegimeChange to demonstrate their solidarity and support for democratic changes inside the country.
All these developments inside the country once again show that Iran is in the midst of economic, political and governance crises. The Islamic Republic is not capable of solving these problems. Referring to this point, Iran’s exiled prince Reza Pahlavi said in an interview with the German newspaper Bild: “This regime is not reformable.” As a matter of fact, authoritarian regimes cannot be reformed or fixed, they can be replaced by democracy which will allow prosperity and human rights to flourish.
Reza Pahlavi’s popularity inside Iran has been rising since 2016 and as an advocate for democratic-secular governance today he represents the Iranian opposition against the current system. His vision for a free, democratic and secular Iran resonates in Iran and amongst the Iranian diaspora. Mr Pahlavi is an outspoken critic of the regime’s military involvement in neighbouring countries. He points out that in the midst of public protests, which are gaining momentum inside the country, the regime could go into military confrontation with the West in order to divert attention from its problems at home. Members of the Iranian diaspora are already demanding allocation of the regime’s assets to the democratic movements, disruption of pro-regime lobby groups in Washington and a coercive approach to human rights in Iran. Local demonstrations have the potential to become a widespread movement in the country. The ruling establishment fears that this may start at any moment on the Iranian streets.