In a recent speech that was given by the President of the EU Commission, von der Leyen, at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, IISS, Manama Dialogue, Leyen dedicated a substantial part of her speech to the threats Iran poses to the Middle East and the world. This comes simultaneously as Germany and Iceland called for an unprecedented UN Human Rights Council Special Session on the “deteriorating human rights situation in the Islamic Republic of Iran.” In Washington, almost no voices speak of the necessity of a nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic anymore, and the focus is directed toward supporting the mass protests against the Ayatollahs. Are the tides of international opinion finally turning against Iran?
Arab Gulf diplomats and observers were shocked when the President of the EU Commission stated in her keynote remarks in Manama that “It took us too long to understand a very simple fact that while we work to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, we must also focus on other forms of weapons proliferation, from drones to ballistic missiles. It is a security risk, not just for the Middle East but for us all.” This was a serious shift in tone from what Arabs have been used to hearing from the Europeans. Moreover, her open statement that “several Gulf countries have been warning for years about the risk that Iran feeds rogue nations around the world with drones,” was considered to be a recognition of Arab frustrations with Western powers that refused to listen to their warning about Iran for a long time. In closed discussions, many Arab diplomats welcomed the change of tone yet made it clear that they would maintain a cautious position and not rush to quick reconciliation with Western powers. The reasons for such hesitancy are the concern that Western powers might be trying to appease Gulf states to gain their corporation in alleviating the energy crisis, gaining Arab support against Russia, and that the European record in Iran has long been bad enough to warrant second thoughts.
But the European recognition of the threats of Iran by von der Leyen does seem less of an aberration and more of a broader shift in attitudes towards Iran. Over a week ago, French President Emanuel Macron met with some of the most notable Iranian dissident women who have been vocal in their opposition to the Islamic Republic. He also allowed him to broadcast their message against the Iranian regime to the media in his presence. This is an unprecedented escalatory move. The Iranian-American activist Masih Alinejad, who tweeted her picture shaking hands with the French President, is known to advocate for the end of the Islamic theocratic regime of Iran. Moreover, this Thanksgiving Thursday, the UNHRC is answering the goal of Germany and Iceland in holding an unprecedented special session to discuss the human rights violations committed by the Islamic Republic. The German Foreign Minister is traveling to Geneva to attend the session, which is very uncommon and was scheduled specifically around his schedule. Insiders in Geneva also informed me that Iranians attempted to call for an urgent meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, OIC, countries to rally Muslim nations for their defense, yet the meeting was so poorly attended that the Iranians themselves doubt they can rally any Muslim support. Doing their part, American diplomats have been working tirelessly to eject Iran from its membership in the UN Commission on the Status of Women.
In the side talks of the IISS Manama’s dialogue, many Western officials gave many reasons to their Arab audience for their turn from their former reconciliatory attitude towards Iran. These reasons can be summarized in the following:
1- Western powers believe they gave Iran a fair and good offer back in March in Vienna to rejoin the JCPOA. Yet the Iranians refused to respond to the offer and only escalated their nuclear enrichment and continued their antagonistic behavior regionally and globally.
2- IAEA reported that Iran continued to enrich uranium in various facilities accumulating over 60 kilograms of highly enriched uranium. After the IAEA censured Iran for such behavior, Iran responded only by escalating its enrichment in the Fordow underground facility using IR6 advanced centrifuges and shutting out the IAEA from all facilities.
3- The unprecedented demonstrations in Iran against the regime following their brutal treatment of many young women makes it extremely difficult for Western diplomats to ignore the anti-Iranian public opinion in their countries.
4- Iran increased its militia activities in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon and its logistical support networks to such militias. Western navies continue to detect a steady flow of arms shipments through the Persian Gulf, aiming at destabilizing US allies.
5- Iranian intelligence activities in Western countries, which often aim at abducting or assassinating Iranian dissidents, like the recent plots uncovered in the UK and Canada, or to assassinate Western officials, like the plots uncovered in the US, show that Iran is not deterred by Western powers. These threats have recently been escalating in an unprecedented manner.
6- Perhaps the most pressing issue for European officials is the rising Iranian-Russian axis and the Iranian support for the Russian war in Ukraine through their drone sales. Arab diplomats also stated that they were told by Western officials about the presence of Iranian military personnel in Crimea and the possibility of transferring Iranian ballistic missiles to Russia. This pushes many Western officials to bundle the Russian and Iranian threats together, viewing them as a unitary threat to the Western-led world order.
7- The growing fear of an energy crisis requires Western countries to maintain strong relations with the Arab Gulf.
8- Many Western powers hope to push Arab states out of a neutral stance on the war in Ukraine. Since the beginning of the war, the Arab Gulf largely insisted on maintaining its good relations with Russia and strongly resisted the Western attempts to pull them into the anti-Putin coalition. Western officials concluded that the Arab frustrations over the Western Iran policy played a significant role, and they sought to make corrections.
While this change is welcomed by many Arab officials, they mostly remain skeptical. One unnamed Arab diplomat ironically commented, “They [the West] always want us to support their causes, but what about ours?” Regardless if these changes in Iran are going to succeed in mending the rift between Western powers and the Arab Gulf, it is wholly positive that the tides of international opinion are finally turning against Iran. A nuclear deal that will provide billions to the Ayatollahs doesn’t seem to be on the horizon anytime soon. The Iranian regime today is under immense international pressure from above and popular pressure from below. If such pressure increases and continues long enough, the Iranian regime may finally be on its way out.
Hussein Aboubakr Mansour is the Director of EMET’s program of Emerging Democratic Voices from the Middle East
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