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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 22 April 2018

European silence on Iran protests despite sanctions call

Iranian protesters waiting for a sign from Europe as violence escalates 

The High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini. Wael Hamzeh / EPA
The High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini. Wael Hamzeh / EPA

It was Henry Kissinger who once asked: "If I want to call Europe, who do I call?"

The modern day answer is Federica Mogherini, the European Commission High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security.

But like Mr Kissinger in the 1970s, any Iranian waiting for Ms Mogherini to address the country's violent protests will have found the EU lacking in a clear-cut voice.

A late night re-tweet from Brussels was the only attempt to engage with the worsening crisis, which began almost one week ago and has claimed the lives of at least 21 people.

“We have been in touch with the Iranian authorities," read the tweet. "We expect that the right to peaceful demonstration & freedom of expression will be guaranteed, following [Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s] public statements. We will continue to monitor the situation”.

Ms Mogherini was seemingly more concerned with highlighting her faith in the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, when she released a list of her top priorities for 2018 on new year's day. While Donald Trump lashed out at the “brutal and corrupt” Iranian regime, Brussels appeared more troubled by the US president's stance on the agreement over Tehran’s capacity for violence.

“Iran is implementing the deal, as certified nine times by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The European Union – as a multilateral and reliable power – will continue to work for the deal to be implemented by all sides,” she wrote.

Germany has also adopted a quietist approach to the demonstrations, pleading with both sides not to escalate clashes into killing zones. “We appeal to the Iranian government to respect the rights of the demonstrators to assemble and to peacefully raise their voices,” Sigmar Gabriel, the acting foreign minister said. “After the confrontations of recent days, it is all the more important that all sides refrain from violent actions.”

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Read more:

Iran's Khamenei blames enemies for unrest as death toll rises to 21

Iran analysis: old grievances spark new protests

Editorial: The Iranian people’s patience runs out

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As Britain entered its last full year as an EU member – it is due to exit the bloc in March 2019 – observers are closely watching London for signs that its foreign policy is taking on an independent tone and outlook. Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, has recently returned from an Iran trip, where he pressed the case for the release of the imprisoned British-Iranian charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. The Foreign Office privately acknowledged on Tuesday that pressure from the backbenches of the Conservative Party over the protests had been noted by policy makers.

Consequently the British diplomats have been more expansive in comments, marking a contrast with Europe's silence.

“The UK is watching events in Iran closely,” a statement from Mr Johnson said. “We believe that there should be meaningful debate about the legitimate and important issues the protesters are raising and we look to the Iranian authorities to permit this".

The British statement also sought to link the handling of events with international law. “We also believe that, particularly as we enter the 70th anniversary year of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, people should be able to have freedom of expression and to demonstrate peacefully within the law,” it said. “We regret the loss of life that has occurred in the protests in Iran, and call on all concerned to refrain from violence and for international obligations on human rights to be observed.”

Sir Richard Dalton, an ex-British ambassador in Tehran, praised Mr Johnson’s statement. “I think they’ve taken the right tone,” he said.

One of the most vocal on the matter has been Tom Tugenhat, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the House of Commons. A former soldier who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, he has actively condemned Tehran’s resort to violence against peaceful demonstrators. “When we see Iranian demonstrators bravely standing up to tyranny we must stand with the people,” he said. “This regime has brutalised and murdered the people for generations.”

A former deputy head of the Downing St policy unit, Daniel Korksi urged Whitehall to give clear backing to ordinary citizens demanding change. “Being on the side of non-violent protestors against the world’s dictators, juntas and ayatollahs is the right place for the UK and the West to be,” he said.

Another Conservative backbench MP Robert Halfon called for imposition of punitive sanctions should there be a bloody crackdown. “True face of Iran: a regime that funds terrorist groups around the world, supports Assad and attacks it's own people protesting about living standards. #Bringbackfullsanctions,” he tweeted. “Iron fist threatened if unrest continues.”

France issued the following statement: “The French authorities are closely following the situation in Iran. The right to protest freely is a fundamental right. The same is true of the free flow of information. France expresses its concern at the large number of victims and arrests.”