Iran Policy and the Self-Improvement of Nations

The New Year is traditionally a time for reflecting upon our deeds and experiences over the past year, with an eye toward self-improvement. In setting New Year’s resolutions, people generally compare their ideal self-image to the actual behaviour they have been exhibiting and they try to bring those things more closely into line.

I see no reason why this ritual of self-improvement should be restricted to individuals. Groups, organizations and entire nations could benefit from the same process, allowing societies more fully to embody their foundational and most guiding principles. With that in mind, the start of January ought to be a time for the European Union and its member states to look back on their policies and the attendant outcomes. These things ought to be considered in the context of our mission of supporting democratic governance and civil liberties within our own societies while also encouraging their peaceful emergence in areas of the globe that remain deprived.

One such area, which has been a prominent topic in foreign policy discussions throughout the preceding year, is the Islamic Republic of Iran. That country remains the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism as well as one of the worst violators of domestic human rights. It continues to display the highest rate of executions per capita while ranking near the bottom in global indices of press freedom and religious freedom.

The ongoing plight of the Iranian people raises red flags about the European Union’s success rate in living up to its own self-image, because EU policies toward Iran have become more conciliatory in recent years, with many European government and business leaders pushing for expanded relations, without condition.

It is long past time for the EU to exert new pressures on the Iranian regime after its President Hassan Rouhani failed to live up to the world’s expectations about domestic reform, an improved human rights record and broad-based rapprochement with longstanding Western adversaries. The continued pursuit of trade with a nation that has made none of these improvements is anathema to our most fundamental values. And policies that benefit the government of such a nation are also deeply at odds with the interests of its own people.

Fortunately, there have already been some whisperings of a new Iran strategy. French President Emmanuel Macron, for instance, has followed the lead of the United States in pushing for an agreement to restrict Iran’s ballistic missile program and thus help to limit its belligerent regional influence. There is still a long way to go from this starting point, but it is often understood that the success of a resolution often starts with baby steps.

That success is also dependent upon a full understanding of the bad habits that an individual has been prone to over the previous year. This, too, applies just as well to the life of nations. And in the case of EU policy toward Iran, it should be understood that we have been exposed to insidious enablers of our worst vices. The secretary of Iran’s Expediency Council called attention to this in December, publicly declaring the Iranian intelligence service to be the most powerful in the Middle East and strongly implying that it would be directed against Western targets.

But if this is Iran’s New Year’s resolution, it will potentially be easy to keep, since the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security has already established a surprisingly strong foothold within Western society and particularly within the media. For example in December, the Huffington Post published an article by Massoud Khodabandeh, a known Iranian Intelligence affiliate. Khodabandeh and his British wife, Anne Singleton, have been working with the Iranian regime for two decades and the history of their recruitment and training has been documented by the British Parliamentary Committee for Iran Freedom and by the Federal Research Division of the US Library of Congress, among others. 

The history of Iran’s secret service’s infiltration into our media shows that in the year ahead, Western journalists and government officials should remain on guard against attempts by Iranian intelligence to undermine policies that might otherwise improve Iran’s prospects for freedom and democracy. That was recognizably the intention behind the above-mentioned Huffington Post article in December, as well as the dozen other articles Khodabandeh has managed to publish in recent years, all of which sought to slander and defame Iran’s leading pro-democracy opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran and the political coalition, National Council of Resistance of Iran. Their political platform for the future of Iran is clearly modelled after the ideal image of any modern democratic nation and it is the duty of all such nations to help the PMOI bring the Iranian nation into line with that ideal image.

First, however, we must bring ourselves better into line with the same. As the year 2018 begins, we can do this by taking steps to both obstruct and counteract Iranian propaganda and associated intelligence operations when they sneak into European society. European governments should use all the tools at their disposal, including sanctions and coordinated diplomatic pressure, to prevent Iran from financing and carrying out operations that target the international affiliates of the Iranian democratic opposition.

In the weeks and months to come, the EU and all its member states should look closely not just at superficial content of their policies toward Iran, but also at the influences and justifications that underlie those policies. Anyone who takes the matter seriously will surely find there is much that should be changed if we are to truly be the sort of society we want to be.