Europe Should Stop Worrying About Iran's Nuclear Deal And Start Looking at Its Human Rights Abuses

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met with European foreign ministers and European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini in Brussels on Thursday (January 11).

The planned agenda for the meeting was a discussion on the ongoing implementation of the 2015 nuclear agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). But if the European participants in those talks stick to this agenda, they will prioritize the wrong issues.

Make no mistake, discussions on Iran's nuclear program are of extreme importance. But as much as Iranian nuclear weapons threaten global peace and stability, this is a threat for another time. Its relative importance shrinks in the presence of other issues that threaten human lives in large numbers at present.

Iran is certainly faced with such a situation at the moment. And by extension, so are all those countries that stand capable of reining in the Islamic Republic and preventing it from exacerbating that situation.

A number of such countries will be represented in the Brussels meeting, and it would be downright irresponsible for them to carry on with a conversation about the JCPOA when there are people inside Iran whose lives are at imminent risk and who are in desperate need of help from the international community.

Recent protests across Iran have led to a predictable crackdown from regime authorities. And as time goes on, the public account of that crackdown grows even more dire.

Although the official death toll stands at 22, more than 45 protesters have been killed in clashes with security forces, according to the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK). This Iranian opposition movement enjoys a vast network of activists in Iran. After a series of court victories, the U.S. removed the group from its terror list in 2012.

Iran protests
An Iranian woman raises her fist amid the smoke of tear gas at the University of Tehran during a protest driven by anger over economic problems, in the capital Tehran on December 30, 2017. At least 22 people were killed and thousands arrested in recent protests. STR/AFP/Getty Images

The number of deaths will likely increase unless the international community takes serious measures to stop the crackdown. Already, the acknowledged number of arrests has increased from only a few hundred to a thousand, and then on January 9, to a staggering 3,700.

It might be understandable if some of the people in Iran will avoid speaking about the situation, fearing that the regime might retaliate against them or against their loved ones. But there is no reason for the European Union or its member states to do so.

Quite the contrary, Western powers must seize upon this opportunity to be the voice of the voiceless, to challenge Zarif over the unjust detention of peaceful protesters, as well as the status of free speech in the wake of their demonstrations.

In addition to overseeing the upsurge in political violence, regime officials have also obstructed citizens' access to the Telegram messaging app and other important resources for disseminating information and communication.

This too is the responsibility of the international community, in part because a number of European leaders embraced President Hassan Rouhani and his colleagues as "moderates," stoking the Iranian people's hopes for domestic reform–hopes that have been systematically dashed through four years of predictably conservative policies, punctuated by the most comprehensive crackdown on dissent since the 2009 Green Movement.

One of the main slogans of recent protests was "no moderate, no hardliner, this game is over."

There is no longer any justification for trusting the Rouhani administration. It is up to Mogherini and others to confront Zarif and make it clear that human rights, freedom of expression and assembly, are enshrined in EU's values. Europe has no interest in being Tehran's accomplice and Zarif cannot have it both ways.

This should be stated publicly and unequivocally. It is up to the European policy makers to formalize a plan that protects Iranian people against reprisals.

The Iran nuclear deal is in no immediate danger. The next discussion on it can wait for another day. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about Iran's activist community.

Thousands of people are awaiting uncertain fates at this very moment. No doubt many of them are being tortured as we speak. The Iranian judiciary itself has warned that those who it prosecutes may face capital punishment.

These are the sorts of things that demand the world's attention the very moment they are happening. It is not enough to make them the subject of distantly-enforced resolutions or long-term debates and negotiations in closed doors.

When the perpetrators and enablers of such abuses stand face to face with policymakers who view themselves as champions of human rights, there should be no other topic that takes precedence in their minds. This is the Europe we can take pride of.

Giulio Terzi, Italy's former foreign minister, is a member of United Against Nuclear Iran's Advisory Board.