The behavior of European leaders towards Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif during his visit illustrates how frightened they are of the Iranian regime and how these non-stop moralists will seemingly do anything for money. Pictured: The EU's chief diplomat, Federica Mogherini (left), poses with Zarif during her August 2017 visit to Iran. (Image source: European External Action Service/Flickr)
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif made a surprise appearance at the Group of Seven (G7) Summit in Biarritz, France, which ended on August 26. Prior to his attendance at the gathering in France, he stopped in Sweden and Norway. Denmark was not part of his itinerary, of course, due to Copenhagen's rocky relations with Tehran, over last year's assassination attempt against an Iranian Sunni separatist on Danish soil.
The purpose of Zarif's trip to Europe, apparently, was to discuss ways to ease tensions in the Persian Gulf and rescue the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) -- the nuclear deal with Iran from which US President Donald Trump withdrew in May 2018.
Zarif's European tour spurred many human rights activists and Iranian opposition groups abroad to protest. Zarif, after all, represents a regime that is widely regarded as one of the world's leading violators of human rights. Those in Iran who raise a voice against Tehran's policies in any realm are often incarcerated: Among them are labor activists, lawyers and women's rights activists, children's rights activists, journalists, members of ethnic and religious minorities, environmental activists and even wildlife activists.
Days before Zarif's trip, in fact, UN human rights experts called on the regime in Tehran to release three women recently sentenced to decades in prison for violating the law that women must wear the hijab.
The demonstrations in Europe were aimed both at Zarif and at European authorities for hosting him. In Stockholm on August 21, peaceful protesters outside the Swedish Parliament were so harassed and beaten by police that Reza Pahlavi -- the Maryland-based heir to the throne of the former Iranian monarchy (his father's ouster coincided with the 1979 Islamic revolution that ushered in the reign of the ayatollahs) -- released the following statement:
"I strongly condemn the Swedish Police's severe and ugly treatment of our countrymen who objected to the presence of the Islamic Republic's agents in Sweden. It is regretful that the Swedish government, which claims to be feminist and progressive, not only hosts the agents of a misogynistic and oppressive regime, but it even violently assaults Iranians who were displaced and exiled by that oppressive regime...
"Iranian people will take back their country, and after their freedom, they will not forget these shameful actions...
"My fellow countrymen, I heard your cry for freedom, and I am proud of your courage. Iranians across the world should learn from your example and through unity and solidarity, not allow the representatives of the regime to travel freely and in peace and lie shamelessly and cover up the Islamic Republic's crimes."
After meeting with Swedish authorities, Zarif attended a seminar at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), whose governing board is chaired by a former Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ambassador Jan Eliasson.
The seminar opened with a speech, followed by questions from the audience. Not only did Eliasson, who introduced Zarif at the podium, warmly embrace the Iranian foreign minister, he also behaved rudely to a Kurdish journalist who confronted Zarif by recounting the story of his imprisonment and torture in Iran -- for the "crime" of being a reporter. To make matters worse, Zarif laughed at the journalist's comments, before answering them with ostentatious lies: that the regime could not be so bad if 73% of the Iranian people voted for it; as if elections in Iran were democratic. They are not.
Zarif then headed for Norway, where demonstrators -- the present author included -- were waiting in Oslo in front of the Prime Minister's Office to protest the arrival of the Iranian foreign minister. The event, however, did not go as planned: police forced our group to stand behind barricades a block away, so that Zarif would not see us.
More significantly, the media reported that Anniken Huifedlt -- a Labor Party member and chair of the parliament's Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defense -- gave Zarif a heartfelt greeting, hands clasped to her chest. Ironically, Huifedlt is one of Norway's most prominent feminists, who later would not comment to the press on Zarif's refusal to shake her hand. Perhaps she was unaware that the Iranian regime forbids handshakes between men and women.
In France, the last destination of Zarif's trip, the 1st arrondissement of Paris installed a large banner on City Hall stating that Iran's mullahs -- and Zarif himself -- violate French principles. This unambiguous message did not prevent French President Emmanuel Macron from having a "productive" meeting with Zarif. It also did not inspire France 24, which conducted an exclusive interview with Zarif, to grill the Iranian foreign minister on the unspeakable human rights situation in the Islamic Republic.
The behavior of European leaders towards Zarif during his visit illustrates how frightened they are of the Iranian regime and how these non-stop moralists will seemingly do anything for money. Iran's strong anti-Israel rhetoric apparently does not bother them, either.
The fear part is probably security-related as well as economic. One sees the impasse over the Strait of Hormuz, vital to 21% of the world's petroleum consumption. Trade with Iran is crucial to many European countries. That is one possible explanation for the seeming doublespeak in which European leaders have been engaging since the establishment of the Islamic Republic 40 years ago -- boasting among themselves and with the United States about setting a shining example of human rights, yet giving their Iranian counterparts a pass on this issue.
Another, more worrisome, explanation for the EU's appeasement of Tehran is that occasionally the ideology of some European public figures overlaps with that of the Iranian regime. The hostility to Israel by British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, for instance, is so great that he is widely called an anti-Semite. Corbyn has apparently received money from Iran's state-run Press TV for interviews. This is the same media outlet that belongs to a regime which says that Israel must be wiped off the map and which holds international Holocaust cartoon contests in Tehran. Another example is Bernd Erbel, the former German diplomat and head of Instex, a "special-purpose vehicle" formed by Germany, France and the UK in January 2019, to facilitate the evasion of US sanctions on Iran. Erbel recently had to resign due an interview he gave to Ken Jebsen, a radio host who has been described as a "conspiracy theorist" and an "anti-Semite."
Those of us who sought refuge away from the brutality of the Iranian regime observe with sadness and horror these desperate attempts by many European leaders to please Tehran. Europeans should be viewing the situation with equal sadness and horror.
Mina Bai, an author born and raised in Iran, is now based in Norway. She also writes for the Norwegian newspaper Nettavisen.