Iranian Ties with Europe Suffer Amid Leadership Crisis and Diplomatic Row

The past week saw a deepening of Iran’s international isolation, together with more fallout from tensions within the upper echelons of the Islamic Republic. Factional infighting prompted the leak of a 2018 speech by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei in which he appeared to lower expectations of European willingness to buck American sanctions. Tacitly validating this assessment, leading European firms have reported dramatically reducing the volume of business with Iran since the US withdrawal from the JCPOA. Meanwhile, Iranian diplomatic friction with both France and the Netherlands has raised the prospect that both nations will withdraw their ambassadors from Tehran.


Iranian news coverage was dominated by the aftereffects of the aborted resignation of Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Zarif’s spokesman confirmed that the resignation was prompted by a pique at having not been informed in advance of a visit by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. According to foreign ministry spokesperson Bahram Qassemi, "The Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not have information at any level,” and "one of the reasons for the resignation of Dr. Zarif was this type of lack of coordination with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”

Although Javad Zarif resumed his duties as Foreign Minister shortly thereafter, the ripples of that episode are still being felt. Witness the leak on Monday of a closed-door speech from 2018 by Iran’s Supreme Leader casting doubt on Europeans’ willingness to skirt US sanctions. He said the 2015 nuclear deal did not resolve “any of the economic problems” faced by the country, and expressed skepticism that an EU-proposed mechanism to shield business from U.S. sanctions would have any effect. The Europeans, he said, “are bad,” said Khamenei. “They are really bad. I have a lot to say about the Europeans; not because of their current policies, but their mischievous nature over the last few centuries.”


Even firms such as French seed maker Vilmorin, eager to resume commerce in the Iranian market, have recorded steep declines of over 90% in the volume of business done in Iran since the resumption of US sanctions in 2018.

Iran’s isolation among European powers deepened this week, as Holland formally recalled its ambassador to Tehran amid an escalating row over an alleged Iranian plot to assassinate Ahwazi Iranian dissidents on Dutch soil. Dutch authorities decided to recall their ambassador after Iran expelled two Dutch diplomats from the country, a step that was itself a response to Holland’s expulsion of two Iranian diplomats believed to be connected to the attempted assassination.

In a similar vein, the semi-official Iranian daily Kayhan reported that France had expelled an Iranian diplomat on the basis of a “ludicrous accusation of attempting to attack a meeting of the terrorist cult of hypocrites [i.e. the Mujahadeen-e Khalq] in Paris.” It demanded reciprocal expulsions to punish “the insolent and vile behaviour of France in accusing and expelling our diplomat from its soil.”

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