The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran had cataclysmic effects on the Middle East that are still rippling through the region today. It gave dormant Islamist movements and terrorists the hope that they could topple governments if they put on enough pressure in the shape of rioting and a high dose of extremism, and it initiated a sectarian struggle in the Middle East that was once believed to be dormant between Sunnis and Shia Muslims.
However, it was in European countries that the leaders of the revolution had resided and taken shelter before moving back to Iran to grab power. Ayatollah Khomeini was a resident of France before he moved back to Iran after the success of the revolution in 1979. He was frequently in contact with other Islamist groups in the West, among them the Muslim Brotherhood with which the Iranian regime forged strong ties from the early days of the revolution.
After the ousting of the former Iranian shah Reza Pahlavi, no Western country provided asylum for the dethroned leader, and his only refuge was in Egypt where he was received by late president Anwar Al-Sadat and was treated like royalty until he passed away a year later and was buried in Cairo. Europe, meanwhile, did not only act for the new Iranian regime politically, but Iranian banks and businessmen throughout Europe also enabled the Iranian regime to remain intact and even to thrive under malleable laws against this terrorist-sponsoring regime.
Yusuf Nada, a Muslim Brotherhood financier now based in Switzerland and known as the Brotherhood’s “foreign minister,” admitted in a 2002 Aljazeera interview that he was the Brotherhood’s contact person with Iran.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s economic ties with Iran go back to the very earliest days of the Islamic regime. They had been initiated during the hostage crisis at the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979, Nada said.
At that time, the US imposed an economic blockade on Iran, closing it off from normal shipping lanes. Iranian trade minister Reza Al-Sadr asked Nada to supply barley and 100,000 tons of steel to Iran. Nada delivered the requested goods, shipping them from Hamburg to Finland and then transporting them by rail through the then Soviet Union to the Caspian Sea where they were later shipped to Iran. Nada said in the interview that he had lost $5 million on the deal, but that he had still felt good about it because it was for an “Islamic country”.
European firms had vast investments in Iran even long before the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal signed with Iran in 2015. French carmaker PSA, which owns brands like Citroen, Peugeot and Vauxhall, had large investments in Iran and sold 445,000 cars there in 2017. Prior to that, it produced cars in Iran in cooperation with the Iranian company Khodro Peugeot Pars, especially a model based on the Peugeot 405.
French investments in Iran were substantial, but so were those of Germany, whose Volkswagen car company had plans for large investments in the country where it sells a large number of its vehicles. Even German automobile giant Mercedes had plans to establish a truck-assembly plant in Iran.
This European cooperation with Iran ceased as a result of former US president Donald Trump’s sanctions on Iran in 2018. PSA and Volkswagen agreed to pull out of the Iranian market as a result of the sanctions imposed by the US prohibiting companies from conducting business in Iran, since these companies would also face sanctions should they break them.
But as ripe as the Iranian market has been for various products made in the European Union, oil is still the largest interest, with companies such as Total of France planning to invest $4.8 billion in Iran’s southern gas fields with a $1 billion initial investment. These plans were not carried out due to Trump’s sanctions.
For Iran, Europe has always been the place to do business outside of its traditional Chinese and Russia partners. Countries such as Austria acted as a neutral base for such deals, a role that Austria and Austrian companies also played during the Cold War when Austria was a centre for trade between the West and the Eastern bloc, giving it almost a neutral stance on most issues.
Even so, the Iranian regime did not always appreciate the gift made to it, and it often abused its relations with the Europeans. The Iranian regime’s terrorist practices were manifested in assassination plots against dissidents and enemies of the Islamic Republic abroad, for example.
It has been reported that as of September 2020, the Iranian regime had assassinated nearly 21 dissidents and enemies abroad. These do not include the bombings that have harmed dozens of civilians abroad, including the bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires. In 2019, the EU agreed to impose sanctions on the Iranian regime for carrying out executions and plotting assassinations on European soil. Two Dutch citizens of Iranian origin were assassinated in Holland, for example, both of them vocal dissidents of the Iranian regime. Even the French authorities accused Iran of plotting the bombing of a rally organised by the Iranian opposition in Paris in June 2018.
Thus, years of cooperation and providing an economic leeway for the Iranian regime did not alter that regime’s dark agenda of attempting to impose its hegemony in the Middle East region. It did not deter the regime from using European soil to carry on its violent agenda either, along with assassinations on the European continent.
Today, when trying to lure Iran away from China and Russia, the EU’s leaders should realise that they are facing an enemy that has a growing missile capability and that will soon have a nuclear capability supporting its hostile stance to most countries in the Middle East and Europe.
Europe’s economic cooperation and appeasement of the Iranian regime despite its lack of commitment to any international agreements is empowering it to take action against its dissidents and in the wider region. Iran declared this month that it is resuming its nuclear activities, and it is high time to take more serious measures against a regime that will stop at nothing to commit violence against its own citizens even on foreign soil.
The fact that the Iranian regime could benefit financially from a renewed JCPOA is cause enough for firmer action to be taken against a regime that is already hostile even without being a nuclear power. It will not become any tamer once it becomes one.
The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 February, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly