Some will object that Iran is in far better shape than its Arab neighbours. However, with the exception of Iranian civil society′s century-long battle against dictatorship and for democracy, such a claim is barely tenable.

The socio-economic indicators are equally bleak, with a very high rate of unemployment, especially among the youth, massive poverty and the monopolisation of immense wealth in the hands of those loyal to or part of the regime.

At the same time there is no meaningful political participation by the bulk of the population, whose destiny is in the hands of an exclusively Islamist political elite. The potential for unrest and upheaval is very much there. Put differently, a sober assessment suggests that the stability of Iran is rather fragile. 

Readjusting foreign and development policies

All of this raises the question of what Germany and Europe can do better in order to achieve the promises implied by "change through trade and rapprochement"?

Berlin should first try to help establish a unified EU policy on Iran, one grounded in universal principles rather than short-term business interests.

Although such a demand may appear unrealistic, the absence of a common EU foreign policy in an increasingly multipolar world is likely to significantly reduce the continent′s weight in the twenty-first century.

Negotiating the nuclear deal in Lausanne: U.S. Foreign Minister John Kerry and Iran′s Javad Zarif (photo: Reuters/Brendan Smialowski/Pool)
Hopes running high following the nuclear deal: the economic sanctions imposed on Iran by the USA and the EU were lifted following agreement of the nuclear deal between Iran, the five veto powers of the UN Security Council and Germany. Since then some 110 business deals have been concluded between foreign and Iranian companies, worth at least 80 billions dollars. The benefits of this economic upturn, however, have been confined solely to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its business empire, Iran′s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the ′bonyads′: tax-exempt economic empires disguised as Islamic charities

As foreign-policy spokesman of the German Green Party Omid Nouripour noted in late May 2017: "If the Europeans fail to finally speak with a single voice, they will soon bid farewell to the main stage of world politics." As a starting point, the human rights organisation Amnesty International has called for Iran business to be tied to the respect of human rights.

Last but not least, the lessons from the “Arab Spring” formulated by the German Development Institute (DIE) ought to be applied to Iran policy as well. Only through harmonising foreign and development policies, which DIE recommends to be serving as guiding principle for policies towards the Middle East and focusing on the well-being of the bulk of the population can Iran policy be placed on a sustainable footing.

A key goal should be promoting inclusive and sustainable development in Iran.

Iran policy during President Rouhani′s first term too often resembled the old, failed paradigm of "authoritarian stability".

In the future, Germany in particular and the EU in general should use their economic and political strengths in the relationship with Iran that lie in their central role in the modernisation of Iran′s industrial infrastructure; in the good reputation they enjoy across the Iranian political spectrum and their substantial role they have played in helping Iran improve its standing in the international system.

Hence, measures shall be taken towards the realisation of the desirable objectives underpinning a "change through rapprochement" policy, binding the deepening of relations to the following conditions: respect for human rights; economic reforms benefiting the majority of Iranians; and de-escalating Iranian regional intervention policies.

Similar policy recommendations were put forward, at the time of Iran′s presidential election, by two members of the German Bundestag′s Committee on Foreign Affairs: Johann Wadephul, rapporteur on relations with the Middle East, the Gulf States and Iran for the CDU/CSU parliamentary group, as well as Omid Nouripour, the Green Party′s foreign-policy spokesperson.

Such conditionalities should be accompanied by a set of policies aimed towards a regional detente, maintaining a policy of equidistance towards Iran and Saudi Arabia, which in practice means being equally critical of the regional roles of Riyadh and Tehran to avoid giving the impression of favouritism; and launching an inclusive regional security architecture through a Conference for Security and Co-operation in the Middle East (CSCME).

These necessary corrections to Iranian domestic and foreign policies, even if gradual, will help put Iran policy on sustainable ground, as well as do justice to the aspirations of the Iranian people.  

Ali Fathollah-Nejad

© Qantara.de 2017

Ali Fathollah-Nejad is Iran expert with the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) and teaches at Harvard Kennedy School′s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

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