The latest round of European sanctions against Iranian officials and security organisations involved in human rights violations and the excessive use of force against demonstrators shows the difficulties that Europe and the West in general have in putting pressure on Tehran.
The EU wants Tehran to change its behaviour internally and regionally, but it also wants to maintain cordial relations with it that will allow the continuation of the talks aimed at preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
Sweden, which currently holds the EU's rotating presidency, said the new sanctions targeted “those driving the repression” in Iran.
In a meeting in Brussels on Monday, EU foreign ministers imposed sanctions on more than 30 Iranian officials and organisations, but the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was not included until further legal processes are complete.
The EU decision was considered by many observers as an act of political pragmatism, since the EU does not want to close the door to negotiations with Iran, despite the recent deterioration in relations against the background of the stalemate in the nuclear negotiations, the suppression of the demonstrations in Iran, and Iranian military support for Russia.
Although the European Parliament gave the green light in a non-binding decision to declare the Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organisation, the EU foreign ministers did not vote in favour after Iran warned that such a move would be a dangerous escalation to which it would respond by declaring European militaries also to be terrorist organisations.
There are disagreements within EU institutions and among European leaders over the best way to deal with Iran. Much is at stake, including the future of nuclear non-proliferation in the Middle East, the dangerous volatility of the oil market, and the regional balance of power.
“The ministers adopted a new package of sanctions against Iran, targeting those driving the repression… The EU strongly condemns the brutal and disproportionate use of force by the Iranian authorities against peaceful protesters,” the EU Presidency said in a tweet on Monday.
The decision saw 37 additional Iranian officials and organisations, including a government minister and various regional governors and lawmakers involved in the crackdown on protesters and other human rights abuses, added to the list of sanctions.
Among the Iranian officials sanctioned are Iran’s Sport and Youth Minister Hamid Sajjadi, who has been accused of pressuring Iran’s athletes to keep silent. The Iranian Special Police Forces were also targeted, accused of using “excessive violence and lethal force against unarmed protesters.”
Companies linked to cyber-security, spyware, social media filtering, and the production of security equipment allegedly used in the crackdowns were also hit. But the elephant in the room was not declaring the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organisation, a decision that, had it been taken, would have put Iranian-European relations on a collision course.
Some EU governments and the European Parliament have made clear that they want the IRGC added to the bloc’s list of terrorist organisations. But EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell, who chaired the meeting, said that this could only happen if a court in a member country handed down a ruling condemning the guards for terrorist acts.
“It is something that cannot be decided without a court decision first,” he told reporters.
Iran had warned the EU that it would take “reciprocal” measures after the European Parliament voted in a non-binding resolution to list the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist group.
On Sunday, Iran’s parliament tabled legislation to designate European armed forces as “terrorists,” saying that this would be put to a vote if the bloc moved forward with its proposal.
“The parliament is working to place elements of the European countries’ armies on the terrorist list” of the Islamic Republic, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said on Twitter.
Amir-Abdollahian and Guards Chief Hossein Salami attended a closed session of Iran’s parliament on Sunday to discuss the response. “The European Parliament has shot itself in the foot,” Iran’s top diplomat said.
If European diplomats “who have no experience in diplomacy... do not correct their positions, every possibility is conceivable,” he was quoted as saying by Iran’s State News Agency (IRNA).
Asked if Iran would consider withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or expelling UN inspectors from the country, Amir-Abdollahian said all options were on the table.
Iranian Parliamentary Speaker Mohamed Bagher Ghalibaf also said on Sunday that the legislature would “retaliate immediately and decisively” if the EU upheld or ratified the European Parliament’s vote.
Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Nasser Kanani warned against such a move. “Based on the UN Charter and international law, blacklisting this state entity would constitute a clear violation of the Charter,” Kanani said, touting the IRGC as an organisation that significantly contributes to the security of Iran and the region.
“Any violation of the IRGC would be a violation of Iran’s national security, and the repercussions would be directed at the violator,” he added.
The EU has already imposed three rounds of sanctions on Iranian officials and organisations, including ministers, military officers, and Iran’s morality police, for human rights violations over the protests that erupted in Iran in mid-September over the death of Iranian woman Mahsa Amini after being detained by the morality police in Tehran on charges of not wearing her hijab, or Islamic headscarf, appropriately.
The latest round of sanctions means that the EU sanctions now apply to a total of 164 people and 31 entities.
The UK also announced more sanctions on Iranian officials, including Deputy Prosecutor-General Ahmad Fazelian. According to the UK Foreign Office, Fazelian is responsible for a judicial system characterised by unfair trials and punishments, including the use of the death penalty for political purposes.
The list of sanctions imposed also includes Kiyumars Heidari, commander of the Islamic Republic’s Ground Forces. The UK Foreign Office said in a statement that Heidari had publicly admitted to his force’s involvement in the violent response to the November 2019 protests.
Also on the sanctions list is Hossein Nejat, deputy commander of the Revolutionary Guard of Sarallah, the division responsible for the security of Tehran. The UK has now imposed 50 new sanctions in response to human rights violations by the Iranian regime since Amini’s death.
The US is also tightening its policies towards Iran and sending messages to the effect that all options are on the table if the nuclear negotiations fail.
The US and Israel began a massive joint military exercise in Israel on Monday.
Juniper Oak 23 is “the most significant exercise between the United States and Israel to date,” a senior US defence official told the US network NBC News, citing its enormous number of aircraft, extensive coordination with the Israel Defence Forces, and complicated live-fire component.
Meanwhile, US Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley said in a Bloomberg TV interview that Washington would increase the pressure on China to cease imports of Iranian oil as the US tries to enforce nuclear sanctions on Iran.
“China is the main destination of illicit exports by Iran,” and talks to dissuade Beijing from the purchases are “going to be intensified,” he said.
The US will “take steps that we need to take to stop the export of Iranian oil and deter countries from buying it,” Malley said. “We have not lessened any of our sanctions against Iran and in particular regarding Iran’s sale of oil.”
Iran’s oil sales have increased in recent months, especially to China, the world’s largest oil importer, after Tehran lowered the price of a barrel of oil to compensate for losses due to the international sanctions imposed on it.
The US Biden administration wants to increase the economic and political pressure on Iran in order to push it to return to the nuclear negotiating table with the West and change its policies regarding support for Russia in its war in Ukraine by supplying it with drones.
However, the European-US strategy to pressure Iran to change its domestic and international approach is fraught with dangers, given the growing belief of a segment within the Iranian elite that the West is supporting the demonstrations in Iran in order to destabilise the regime and that any new nuclear agreement will not last long.
With the deterioration of trust between Tehran and the West, any miscalculations may complicate relations even further and set them back decades.