- There seems to be little attention paid to the link between Iran’s proxy wars and migration to Europe. However, this link exists as the conflicts in Syria and Yemen, as well as the deteriorating situation in Lebanon, are all exacerbated and continuous due to Iranian proxies.
- That has real consequences for Europe. Asylum seekers from Syria are still Europe’s single largest group of asylum applicants.
One of the big questions I often get from my friends in or from the Middle East is, “how can the EU have a foreign policy so contradictory to its values? Why do they do that?”
The key word that can be helpful for both understanding and changing the current EU policy is the word “they.” The questions are which “they” do we speak about, what guides this “they,” and what do the rest of “them” actually need and want? This third question leads to the final one: “How to change the terms of the debate, and with whom is it necessary to cooperate?”
This formulation may not be very academic, but overly academic language may obfuscate several manifest truths essential for clear understanding.
Who Are “They” Who Decide EU Foreign Policy?
Many readers will know to some degree that most foreign policy is not made by those elected. However, the full implications of that fact are nevertheless often insufficiently taken into consideration in dealing with the perplexing contradictions of the EU policies in the Middle East and Central Asia. This is especially true for the EU policy on Iran.
The reality of EU foreign policy-making does not start in “Brussels” but in the capitals of the EU member states since foreign policy is not an EU competence. Consequently, the EU High Representative (Mr. Josep Borrell) and his European External Action Service (EEAS, the EU equivalent of a Ministry of Foreign Affairs) are tasked with carrying out the policy. It is important to note that the High Representative has the right of initiative (even if it has to be agreed by unanimity).1 In general, the decision-making in EU Foreign Affairs is, by and large, an interaction between civil servants and diplomats at the national and EU level.2 National parliaments are usually on the sidelines. Therefore, short-term economic interests often trump moral considerations regarding human rights (unless they do not interfere with established interests).
What Guides “Them?”
Over the last few years, some of my friends with a background in Iran have been in meetings with the staff of European ministries of foreign affairs. Usually, my friends were astonished by the lack of empathy regarding the human rights situation in Iran and the focus on economic opportunities instead of the people with whom they spoke.3
The actual EU foreign policy priorities are usually clear: energy security,4 enhancing trade and exports,5 maintenance of the existing status quo (almost regardless of reality), and some progressive causes. These progressive causes are usually a limited set of totemic issues (women’s rights, for example) that are typically not allowed to interfere with the real priorities seen as “interests.”6
While EU and EU member states foreign policy is concerned chiefly with specific interests, the public is better served by putting the public interests first. This is because specific interests are focused on (immediate) outcomes of specific cases while public interest is confronted with ultimate results. The latter is usually also closer to the focus of those elected, especially if it is put in terms of public consequences such as terror attacks or immigration. This brings us to the EU policy on Iran.
What Do “The Rest Of Them” Need and Want? The Immigration Issue
It is remarkable that those critical of the Iran policy of the EU almost never made the connection with immigration a focus when making their case in the public debate.
What is relevant here is that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) owns critical economic sectors and major companies in Iran.7 This means that the Iranian economy as a whole (and not just the state) is funding the IRGC and its proxies in the region. The malign influence of Iran’s proxies has been extensively documented elsewhere.8 Surprisingly, there seems to be little attention to the link between Iran’s proxy wars and migration to Europe. However, it is beyond any doubt that this link exists as the conflicts in Syria and Yemen, as well as the deteriorating situation in Lebanon, are all exacerbated and continuous due to Iranian proxies. Without them, the conflict in Syria would have already ended, and Assad would not have survived to this day.9
That has real consequences for Europe. Asylum seekers from Syria are still Europe’s single largest group of asylum applicants. This is especially true for the EU member states that feel the most pressure, namely Germany and The Netherlands.10 There is, therefore, a transparent chain of realities from increased investment in Iran to increased immigration.
After the latest wave of protests, the Parliaments and foreign ministers of these and other EU member states want less migration They also want a tougher line against Iran (even though they do not connect these issues). So it is clear what “the rest of them” need and want.
How to Change the Debate’s Terms and Whom Is it Necessary to Cooperate?
The key challenge is communicating the described chain of realities leading to increased immigration. Furthermore, it is critical to present an alternative Iran policy.
Parliaments of the EU member states are calling for the IRGC to be put on the terror list in light of Iran’s severe human rights violations11 – something Borrell tries to block.12 This shows that while the public and parliaments are incensed over the human rights violations (and really want less migration), the diplomatic class is not on the same page.
National parliaments can assert real influence, but it requires that MPs of both center-right and center-left have absolute clarity of what is at stake and what a realistic alternative can be. If that clarity is available, they could act accordingly and put serious pressure on their Ministries of Foreign Affairs. They will align with the interests of their electorates, especially if this is combined with a moral message in support of the citizens of Iran.
However, as long as there is no alternative to the JCPOA, the revival of the nuclear deal remains the default option. Even if there was a military escalation, any long-term solution will need to deal with the realities in Iran, and engagement with the Iranian opposition is therefore necessary.
The Iranian opposition is far from being united, and there is no European or Middle-East (Israeli) active policy to encourage cooperation, partly because most policymakers and politicians lack an overview of the opposition. The political landscape of the Iranian opposition can probably be best understood by including an overview of categories:
Ethnic liberation movements (5 umbrella organizations/32 parties):
Social movements in Iran (workers, writers, etc), for example:
Human Rights focused organizations/
religious minorities advocacy
|Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) (NCRI)||Well-known activists & celebrities||
One major fault line in the Iranian opposition is whether the Iran they seek will be a centralized state or a confederate one. Around 50% of the population does not belong to the Farsi ethnicity.
Recently, a coalition of monarchists, activists, and celebrities has mistakenly been understood as the significant coalescing of the Iranian opposition forming around Reza Pahlavi.13 However, this has been rejected by almost all other opposition movements.14 In light of this development, it could be a more productive approach to encourage the whole spectrum of opposition to find common ground around a compromise on the future of Iran and an effective transition plan. Even inside Iran, there is a growing sense that this kind of cooperation is necessary, as seen in the recently published statement of 20 Iranian (underground) civil society organizations.15 This declaration apparently has been endorsed by Republican parties and could become part of a broader political gathering of the Iranian opposition. All those who see Iran as a threat must encourage the opposition to take steps in a direction that will include all categories of their political landscape.
Ideally, a broad and inclusive opposition coalition could achieve the same status as the Belarus opposition, who opened their March 1 “democratic mission of Belarus” in Brussels with the official support of the Belgian government. A similarly united Iranian opposition would be able to have a serious impact on the ground in Iran as it would unite movements in Iran and the diaspora for the common cause.
This development would make the case that the current EU policy has failed in terms of results and that a better option is possible.
The key to changing EU policy on Iran is to reassess the audience that needs to be reached and adjust the message accordingly. This means that there is a need to differentiate the various layers of decision-making. Those critical of the JCPOA need to align their message with the needs and values of the first and most important layer of EU democracy. This effort needs to be coupled with a new engagement with the whole spectrum of the Iranian opposition.
The general public of citizens of EU Member States and their elected MPs should be seen as the audience as they are on the receiving end of the ultimate outcomes of the JCPOA policy. They have the right to understand the connection between this policy and the migration it created and will create. Simultaneously, the citizens of Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen need an end to oppression and war.
Ultimately, the refugee from Syria and the citizen from Germany are on the same side and deserve an EU policy that prioritizes this reality.
* * *
Article 22.2 of the TEU states that – “Any Member State, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, or the High Representative with the Commission’s support, may refer any question relating to the common foreign and security policy to the Council and may submit to it, respectively, initiatives or proposals”↩︎
This would increase if unanimity were to be abandoned for QMV: ‘Commission president calls to end unanimity in EU foreign policy decisions’, David M. Herszenhorn, Politico (EU), 20 June 2022↩︎
‘European Companies Rushed to Invest in Iran. What Now?’, Jack Ewing and Stanley Reed, New York Times, 9 May 2018↩︎
‘Energy policy is at the centre of EU foreign policy’, HR VP Josep Borrell, EEAS, 20 May 2022 & ‘EU and Azerbaijan enhance bilateral relations, including energy cooperation’, EC President Ursula von der Leyen, 18 July 2022 (among other examples demonstrating energy security trumping human rights)↩︎
There is however a marked change in which human rights become more a priority in trade. This can be seen in the EC proposal for a Directive on corporate sustainability due diligence (published 23 February 2022).↩︎
One example is the variety in application of women’s right’s: there is a clearer emphasis on women’s rights in EU – ACP relations than in EU – MENA relations. The EU aims to oblige ACP countries to far-reaching policies regarding SRHR etc. in the draft new EU-ACP agreement. The same is not applied in EU – MENA relations.↩︎
‘Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and the Communications Economy’, Monika Gill, Defence Strategic Communications, The official journal of the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, 1st February 2021↩︎
Among others: ‘Iran’s Islamist Proxies in the Middle East’, Ashley Lane, Wilson Centre, 24 January 2023 &
‘Tehran’s Proxy Army: Iran’s Regional Role’, Matthew Levitt, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 29 May 2022↩︎
See among others: ‘Iran’s credit line to Syria: A well that never runs dry’, Karam Shaar and Ali Fathollah-Nejad, Atlantic Council, 10 February 2020 & ‘Iran’s stakes in Syria’, Amatzia Baram, Geopolitical Intelligence Services (Gisreportsonline), 28 October 2021↩︎
According to the Dutch Central Bureau for Statistics of the number of asylum applicants in June 2022
in The Netherlands, 49% came from Syria and 7% from Yemen. These numbers reflect the same trend
throughout 2022 in The Netherlands. In Germany, the number of Syrian applicants in 2022 is around
‘Tweede Kamer wil militair elitekorps van Iran op terreurlijst van de EU plaatsen’, NU.nl, 22 December 2022; ‘Regierung zur Terrorlistung von Irans Revolutionsgarde’, Bundestag, Menschenrechte/Ausschuss – 09.02.2023 (hib 104/2023); ‘France has not ruled out declaring Iran’s Guards to be a terrorist group’, John Irish, Reuters, 10 January 2023↩︎
‘EU imposes new Iran sanctions, won’t brand Guards ‘terrorists’ for now’, Bart H. Meijer & Ingrid Melander, Reuters, 23 January 2023↩︎
‘Iran exiled opposition figures in talks to unite against government’, Reuters, 10 February 2023↩︎
KDPI (https://kurdistanmedia.com/fa/news/2023/03/2), MEK (https://women.ncr-iran.org/2023/02/12/rally-in-paris/), Organisation of Iranian Peoples Fadaian (https://www.kar-online.com/node/18655) (et al)↩︎
‘20 Independent Trade Unions and Civil Organisations Issued a Joint Charter of Basic Demands – Full Text’, Zamaneh Media, 15 February 2023↩︎