The West and Iran: A failed approach

By Ghazaleh Razavi, Irani journalist, based in Paris

Photo Credits: IMAGO / Mauersberger

The year 2022 offers the prospect of seeing two long-standing global political plagues die away at the same time: Putin’s Russia and the Iran of the mullahs. The Ukrainians have known that both are a plague in many respects since they heard the engines of the Iranian kamikaze drones, by the way with the help of Austrian engines, roaring over their cities. The mullahs had sided with Putin from the start of the war. In contrast, pro-Ukrainian memes were circulating in Iranian civil society.

The Syrians suffered from Russian-Iranian cooperation ten years ago. Without the Russian Air Force and Iranian Revolutionary Guards, the Arabellion would have swept away dictator Bashar al-Assad. In the meantime, Iran is deliberately destabilizing the entire region, currently the young democracy in Iraq. The fall of the Iranian regime would be a boon for everyone. Is this moment a chance for acting?

If many European governments find it difficult to switch from cheap rhetoric to solid support during Russia’s war against Ukraine, we observe a similar pattern in the case of Iran. Foreign policy appears to be counting on getting away with Sunday speeches and book fair appearances, waiting out until the protests stop. Otherwise, it would be obvious to put the boldly proclaimed value-based, feminist foreign policy like the one in Germany, orchestrated by Minister Baerbock (Greens) and her boss Chancellor Olaf Scholz (Social Democrats), into practice for a change. But that’s exactly what doesn’t happen.

The exiled Iranians noticed and took the initiative. In open letters and at well-organized large-scale demonstrations, such as the recent one in Berlin, they call for a more decisive stance against the Iranian terror regime. These people are not political dreamers or agitators. Their proposals are constructive and can be implemented: consistent travel bans for the representatives of the regime, but visa easing for civil society actors. Provision of satellite internet and free VPN servers. Lifting sanctions that benefit the regime but harm people, such as money transactions. And finally the suspension, if not termination, of the nuclear negotiations. The Iranians don’t trust Western politics, a well-known Iranian writer from Tehran writes.

Instead of relying on the democratically-minded opponents of the regime, the governments like the one in Germany finances the think tank CARPO in Bonn, which is considered to be close to the regime, with 900,000 euros a year and takes advice from it, as the journalist Lisa Kräher recently worked out in “uebermedien.de“. The head of the think tank is the German-Iranian Adnan Tabatabai, he is the son of one of Khomeini’s close associates, Sadegh Tabatabai.

Against the background of such cases, the anger of many exiled Iranians towards European politics becomes understandable. The suspicion is that they are playing a double game: cheap verbal support for the protest movement and women; concrete political investments in the regime, even the bet that this has a future, not the opposition. The arguments for such a policy come from consultants like Tabatabai (who are paid to do it), but also from many observers who don’t trust the hype surrounding the opposition.

The Istanbul correspondent for the German SZ newspaper summed up the unreserved attitude: “The impression that a real revolution is in full swing in Iran is largely conveyed in Europe by Iranian opposition figures in exile. They are party, that is their right. What should not be pushed into the background are the facts. Is the theocratic regime really collapsing?”

The reasons for the lack of attitude, of course, go deeper. An independent German or even European Iran policy does not exist. Instead, this one is made in Washington. Since Obama, the focus there is no longer on regime change, but on the integration of the Islamic Republic. Obama wanted to sweep up the shards of his predecessor George W. Bush’s damaged Middle East policy into a manageable heap. Trump canceled the nuclear deal, but Biden wants to revive it. If there is a new nuclear agreement, it is hoped, on the one hand the danger of a violent Israeli-Iranian conflict will be averted, on the other hand Iran could offer its oil and gas on the world market and defuse the energy crisis.

The nuclear negotiations are on hold because of the congressional elections this week. But nobody is talking about leaving them, as many Iranians are demanding. The reason? Before Iran finally threatens to become capable of nuclear weapons, Israelis and Americans would intervene militarily, with far-reaching consequences for the stability of the region, especially Israel’s. The consequence of this geopolitical constellation is a paralysis of western Iran policy, which has meanwhile taken on Hamlet-like features. The monologue about our values ​​runs in endless repetition.

While in the case of Ukraine many are now convinced that it is a matter of life or death for us, too, the Iranian regime’s forty-year war against justice, freedom, the sovereignty of neighboring countries and Iranian women and men is secretly believed to be the natural state of things. In the eighteenth century, Montesquieu, one of the fathers of the European Enlightenment, believed that despotism was the only form of government appropriate to the Orient: “A spirit of servitude reigns in Asia and has never left it, and in all the histories of this part of the world one can not find a single trait that characterizes a free soul.”

If doubts have arisen over the past three hundred years about this “enlightened”, but in fact orientalist view of Asia, Adnan Tabatabai and his ilk are there to refute the doubts and to orientalize themselves in line with expectations: “Women to whom the compliance with the hedjab (veiling) is particularly important, it is now easier for them to be in public places, to study and to have a job in a community with men.”

To put it bluntly: the self-unveiling of Iranian women is not planned, neither from the perspective of the regime nor from that of a West that puts its interests before its values. Personal initiative and political subjectivity on the part of non-Westerners turn out to be less desirable, because they threaten to upset the prevailing order of things. It is we who decide when the Muslim woman unveils herself; not she herself. In Afghanistan she should, in Iran she should rather wait. In the Orientalist narrative, the political subject of world history is the West, not Asia, not Islam and certainly not the Muslim woman. If they see things differently and unveil themselves, there is a risk of wars, refugee crises and further price increases.

What applies to the Ukrainians, namely being able to count on the support of the West if they defend their own freedom and thus their freedom in general (according to reports also ours), does not apply to the Iranians by a long shot. Not even if the mullahs’ long arm reaches as far as Ukraine. In the geopolitical narrow-mindedness of our politics, the West ends, the freedom ends, human rights and political subjectivity end somewhere between Kharkiv in the east and Odessa in the south – and even this we can count as progress. Whether the Donbass and Crimea are still part of it is currently being fought out and renegotiated at some point. In any case, Iran is not one of them. In view of this, the cynical but only honest message to the Iranians is: Don’t rely on us. Expect nothing. We won’t stand by you. If you overthrow the regime, you do it at your own risk. But we wish you every success!

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