Written by Alejo Vidal Quadras 24th March 2021—
Various NATO foreign ministers began holding meetings in Brussels on Tuesday. There is little doubt that some of their discussions will focus on Iran, but it remains to be seen whether the gathering will yield any sort of policy consensus on matters other than the 2015 nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
As important as it is to prevent the Iranian regime from acquiring a nuclear weapon, debates over the JCPOA have had the unfortunate effect of blinding many Western policymakers to the need for sustained pressure on that regime in other areas. This has seemingly emboldened Tehran in many of its malign activities, including some that are closely related to the nuclear issue.
One of the most frequently repeated criticisms of the JCPOA is that it failed to address the ballistic missile program run by the country’s hardline paramilitary, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. In fact, United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231, which governs the nuclear deal, actively weakened the language of prior resolutions that referenced those weapons.
Prior to 2015, the regime had been categorically banned from working on potential delivery systems for a nuclear weapon, but once the JCPOA was implemented, the regime was merely “called upon” to avoid work on weapons that were designed with that specific purpose in mind. Since then, the IRGC has carried out more than a dozen ballistic missile tests, involving at least eight systems that are capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
What’s more, the Iranian regime actually deployed ballistic missiles on at least four occasions in Syria and Iraq, most recently in an operation that targeted US forces in an effort to retaliate for the January 2020 killing of Qassem Soleimani, the head of the IRGC’s extraterritorial branch known as Quds Force. Even in the wake of that unprecedented provocation, the European response to Iran’s missile activity has been muted, presumably because it is beyond the scope of a nuclear deal that European leaders are singularly intent on saving.
The neglect of this issue has clearly invested the Iranian regime with an expanded sense of its own impunity. This was expressed just last week when state media showcased images from the IRGC’s “missile cities,” a series of underground tunnels used to house an ever-growing stockpile of ballistic missiles and to ostensibly protect them from attack by foreign adversaries. The images were accompanied by commentary from IRGC leadership and the Iranian defense minister, who vowed to continue growing the stockpile and pursuing ever more advanced ballistic missile technology.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei also weighed in on the topic in the context of an address that praised the IRGC more generally. He instructed the Guards to “continue your good activities with power,” apparently referring not only to the ballistic missile program but also to a range of other paramilitary operations in both domestic and foreign regions of influence.
Khamenei offered his effusive praise for the chief perpetrators of Iranian terrorism, proxy wars and political repression less than a month after the IRGC sparked massive protests in Sistan and Baluchistan Province by fatally shooting impoverished fuel porters who were protesting interference with their only means of economic survival. The remarks also came less than six weeks after a Belgian federal court issued severe guilty verdicts for four Iranian operatives who had plotted to detonate an explosive device on European soil, at an annual gathering of expatriate activists and sympathetic lawmakers.
Each of these developments has received scant attention from Western leaders, despite the fact that both have been repeatedly highlighted as examples of broader underlying phenomena that could have dramatic ramifications for the future of the Iranian nation and its people.
In an online event organized just ahead of the Iranian New Year holiday, Nowruz, the Resistance leader Maryam Rajavi pointed to the Sistan and Baluchistan protests and said they were a sign that “The fire of uprisings has risen from under the ashes of the coronavirus.” She was referring to the fact that Iran underwent three nationwide uprisings between December 2017 and January 2020, before large-scale public activism took a downturn as a result of the Iranian government’s complete failure to contain the effects of the global pandemic.
Despite that downturn, Iranian government officials and anti-government activists both continued to acknowledge the prospect of resurgent uprisings throughout the past year. The IRGC’s clashes with fuel porters and fellow residents of the border region were only one example of those expectations being realized. Others include recurring protests by pensioners who have seen a steady decline in their real earnings, and ongoing, successful recruitment of young Iranians to “Resistance units” affiliated with the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK).
There are several reasons why these developments warrant attention from the international community and should not be overshadowed by the European Union’s obsession with preserving the JCPOA. In the first place, they raise serious questions about the long-term viability of the existing Iranian regime, a regime that Western policymakers have long assumed to be the only system capable of maintaining power in Tehran. For critics of that narrative, the pre-pandemic uprisings and the popular embrace of MEK slogans constitute strong evidence for the viability of that organization’s parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, as an alternative governing structure for a democratic transition in Iran.
The uprisings are also important to the West in the sense that they are a test of European commitment to universal human rights principles. As protests expanded from roughly 100 localities in January 2018 to nearly 200 cities and towns in November 2019, the regime’s reactionary violence grew more desperate and more serious.
After the second nationwide uprising flared up instantly in response to implementation of clearly harmful economic policies, the IRGC responded by opening fire on crowds of protesters throughout the country, killing approximately 1,500. The NCRI soon determined that over 12,000 people were arrested during the unrest, and Amnesty International issued a report detailing some of the torture that detainees were being subjected to for months afterward.
The EU has yet to take serious action over this crackdown, even though there is plenty of evidence that persistent tensions between the Iranian government and its people could still lead to even worse human rights abuses, and also to consequences for the security of Western nations. This fact was highlighted anew on February 4 with the Belgian judiciary’s conviction of the four Iranian operatives, one of whom was a high-ranking diplomat stationed at the regime’s embassy in Vienna.
Their 2018 terror plot was largely motivated by the failure of crackdowns on the uprising at the beginning of that year. Its main target was Maryam Rajavi when she was to deliver the keynote speech at an NCRI gathering where dozens of European and American high-rank policymakers were also in attendance and would have been killed or wounded in this terrorist attack. The Alliance for Public Awareness, a group representing Iranian communities from throughout Europe, wrote in a letter on Monday that “this conspiracy could have been one of the bloodiest terrorist events in European history.”
The letter was addressed to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and rightly condemned European policies for being inattentive to this threat and all the phenomena underlying it. “We call on you to hold the Mullahs’ regime accountable for its state-sponsored terrorism, widespread human rights abuses, ballistic missiles program, as well as attempts to acquire nuclear weapons,” the letter declared before urging the closure of Iranian embassies if the regime will not conclusively agree to halt its malign activities.
Although NATO foreign ministers may remain silent on the matter this week, there are plenty of European politicians who are eager to endorse the APA’s policy recommendations to change an appeasement policy that has proved along decades to be both ineffective and counterproductive.
Alejo Vidal-Quadras, a professor of atomic and nuclear physics, was vice-president of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2014. He is President of the International Committee In Search of Justice (ISJ)