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Iran: Time for a plan B

Nicola Beer is vice president of the European Parliament. Peter R. Neumann is a professor of security studies and director of the Institute for the Freedom of Faith and Security in Europe.   

While the war in Ukraine continues to swamp our front pages, there’s another conflict that has reached a crisis point. After 10 months of negotiation, attempts to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — also known as the Iran Nuclear Deal — have stalled and may well end in failure.  

In tandem, over the last couple months, the Iranian government has taken a number of escalatory steps. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the country has now accumulated over 40 kilos of highly enriched uranium — enough to produce at least one nuclear bomb; it switched off several cameras at its nuclear sites in June; and it recently started enriching uranium at its underground facility Fordow, which it had promised would only be used for peaceful purposes. Even United States Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley described the latest round of negotiations in Qatar as a “wasted occasion.” 

However, while it was right to try to revive the deal, which former U.S. President Donald Trump had unilaterally — and unwisely — canceled, Europe now needs to weigh up its alternatives. If we simply cling to the idea that continued negotiations will somehow lead to resolution, we’ll be sleepwalking as we did with Russia, allowing a hostile power to take advantage of diplomacy while pursuing increasingly aggressive actions against us and our allies. 

Indeed, under the hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi, Iran is increasingly out of control.  

Domestically, thousands of people have been imprisoned and tortured for opposing the regime, while hundreds are on death row for crimes such as “insulting the prophet.” According to Amnesty International, women also continue to face “entrenched discrimination,” and religious minorities, such as the Bahá’i, are being viciously oppressed and “ethnically cleansed” from parts of the country.  

U.N. Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur on Iran Ahmed Shaheed has been denied entry to the country since Raisi’s ascent to power as well. And while members of the leadership freely use Twitter to spread anti-Semitic lies, the government is making it a crime for Iranian citizens to access Western social media. 

Iran continues to be a major source of instability across the Middle East too. In trying to extend its influence, the government has sponsored militias like the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Houthis in Yemen, which, in recent years, have launched “out of area” operations targeting civilians in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. 

And while many countries in the region are increasing their cooperation with Israel, including through the Abraham Accords, Iran’s sponsorship hasn’t just enabled Hamas’ ongoing rocket attacks, but it has actively supported groups such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which have instigated much of this summer’s violence.    

The war in Ukraine has only made it more urgent to counter these activities.  

At a recent summit in Turkmenistan, Russian and Iranian leaders promised to increase bilateral trade and set up payment systems that sidestep the Western banking system. According to recent reports, Iran is already helping Russia import banned electronics and spare parts, while “Russian businesspeople are learning from their Iranian counterparts how to circumvent sanctions.” According to U.S. officials, Iran is planning to supply Russia with killer drones as well. 

Of course, all diplomatic efforts should still be used to facilitate a deal all parties can agree on. Lasting and sustainable peace in the region will only be possible with Iran buying in. But the European Union can’t turn a blind eye to the country’s current unwillingness to engage in constructive talks while escalating aggression at the same time.  

It is, therefore, time to reevaluate our approach. 

U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley described the latest round of negotiations on the Iran Nuclear Deal as a “wasted occasion” | Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images 

This might involve the reimposition of multilateral sanctions, which is difficult but not impossible. And, equally important, under the leadership of High Representative Josep Borrell, European governments and the EU must do much more to curb Iran’s activities right here in Europe, where their government is spreading propaganda, raising money, persecuting opposition activists, and even plotting terrorist attacks.  

As long as Iran continues to oppress its own people, foment terrorism, and aid and abet Russia in breaking international law, relying on negotiations alone won’t be enough. 

Europe needs to have a plan B.

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