Updated: Dec 16, 2019
On an evening in November 2017, as Ahmed Mola Nissire turned to his home in The Hague, an assassin gunned him down in front of his door. A Dutch citizen of Iranian origin, he was fifty-two years old.
Nissi was a prominent figure in the Arab Struggle for the Liberation of Ahvaz, an activist group which agitates for the formation of a separate state in Western Iran. The government in Tehran has condemned the group as a terrorist organization.
And now, for the first time, Dutch authorities have publicly announced that it was the Iranian government which commissioned this murder.
Nissi’s death is not an isolated case. Another of Tehran’s political opponents, Ali Motamed, was killed in similar circumstances in Amsterdam in 2015 due to his implication in a bombing in Iran in the 1980s. In fact, a series of assassination and terrorist plots across Europe and North America, some successful and others not, have been traced back to Tehran in recent years.
The United States’ heavy-handed methods have generated blanket-style criticism across large sections of the European media. Nevertheless, when it comes to Iran, the US’s Iran policy may bear some merit. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), aka the nuclear deal, from which the US’s withdrawal prompted heavy censure from across the Atlantic, had its fundamental flaws.
While the West hoped that the nuclear deal was going to be transformational, from the perspective of the Iranian leaders, the nuclear deal was transitional and temporary. Putting the brakes on the Iran’s nuclear program should only have been a means to achieving the wider goal of curbing its regional ambitions. Western leaders’ focus on the narrow objective of checking Tehran’s arsenal – in which they succeeded – came at the heavy cost of removing leverage on the country’s more immediately malign and destructive policies.
In other words, by complying with the JCPOA, the Islamic Republic has almost bought itself a blank check to advance its aggressive, zero-sum policies across the Middle East. Desperate for the JCPOA to succeed, Western leaders appear to have sold at too high a price.
The JCPOA was signed in 2015, and in the intervening period, Iranian funding and arming of Hamas and Hezbollah in Lebanon has increased. The militant group’s firing of rockets into Israel causes regular civilian casualties and makes the possibility of peace in the region as remote as it has ever been.
Meanwhile, it is Iranian support of the Shiite Houthis in Yemen that has contributed to the conflict to rage on for so long. While the Arab Coalition has borne the brunt of the criticism for the humanitarian crisis in the country, we should agree on the notion that the Houthis have also been responsible for some of the war’s worst abuses according to the United Nations: the use of child soldiers, torture, the rape of civilians and the employment of human shields.
Coming into force last November, Trump’s sanctions have hit most of Iran’s major industries, including oil, shipping and banking. Commercial relations with all blacklisted entities are also prohibited according to the Department of Justice. This means that anyone who does trade with Iran can no longer do trade with the US. While President Trump may have his critics, his hard line sanctions seem to be the only kind of political message Tehran can understand.
The method is draconian and the language unforgiving, but ultimately, over time, this will inflict some damage on Tehran’s ability to conduct its regional program.
With Iran’s political meddling occurring so far from home, it is unsurprising that the EU has been hesitant to abandon the JCPOA.
Now, the new accusations of the Dutch government should serve as a wake-up call to policy-makers. The murders of Nissi and Motamed can leave no doubt as to the nature of the state which the EU is facing and appears to be continuing to tolerate. It would be inconceivable to argue that Europe should choose side with a rogue state over its oldest and closest ally of the past century.
The Iranian government is benefitting from the disunity and deep gap between the European and the US policy – and unfortunately if this gap is not bridged and if the EU does not change its position, we will likely observe more destructive behavior from Tehran including assassinations or bomb plots over the coming months and years.
A united front, comprising of joint sanctions, would send a clear message and engender an economic stranglehold which would force the Iranian government to concentrate on its domestic agenda.
It is worth noting that, on January 8th, the EU did announce a positive step. In light of the Dutch revelations, minor sanctions were imposed on sectors of the Iranian ministry of intelligence, as well as on Saeid Hashemi Moghadan, the deputy intelligence minister.
However, these do not go nearly far enough, particularly if the EU is reluctant to adequately address the flaws of the JCPOA, and if the EU is inclined to continue its support for the JCPOA. Iranian violations will more likely continue, and the stability of the Middle East will continue to suffer as Tehran pursues its subversive agenda. The EU must commit itself to meaningful joint action with its transatlantic partner to put a stop to this rogue behavior.