The European Union (EU) recently imposed sanctions targeting three Iranian state entities and eight security officials, including Commander-in-Chief of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Hossein Salami, over Iran’s violent crackdown following nationwide protests against fuel price hikes in 2019. As per the UN, at least 304 people were killed during the crackdown, however, according to the US special representative to Iran, nearly 1,000 people may have been killed because of the brutality unleashed by the Iranian government. The sanctions coincide with talks in Vienna which aim to revive the nuclear deal. The Iranian government has called the sanctions an “illegal move” and a “shameful act.”
Despite Iran’s past record of human rights abuses and international law violations, the EU hesitated to impose travel bans and freeze Iranian assets as it did not want to anger Tehran to preserve the nuclear deal. However, the recent EU decision against Iran is its first since 2013 and reflects a tougher position regarding Iran’s ongoing human rights abuses. Commenting on the situation an EU diplomat said, “Those responsible for serious violations must know there are consequences.” However, a European diplomat confirmed that the “sanctions had been in the pipeline for a long time” and it was decided to announce the sanctions despite ongoing nuclear talks in Vienna. In response to the EU sanctions, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh said that Iran is “suspending all human rights talks and cooperation resulting from these talks with the EU, especially in (the fields of) terrorism, drugs, and refugees.”
The EU sanctions come at a crucial time amid the ongoing Vienna talks where both sides have made several demands and Tehran continues to refuse to cease its uranium enrichment unless the United States lifts its sanctions on the country. Furthermore, in a response to the recent attack on Iran’s key nuclear facility in Natanz, Tehran has started to enrich uranium up to 60 percent which will speed up Iran’s nuclear break-out time. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has also threatened that Iran is capable of “enriching uranium up to 90 percent if they wanted to.” As per some reports, the recent attack at the Natanz nuclear facility resulted in damaging several thousand machines and assets despite conflicting accounts given by Iranian officials. Iran’s recent actions clearly indicate Tehran’s age-old strategy of threatening to militarize its nuclear capabilities in order to put pressure on the United States while facing “serious disagreements” at the Vienna talks. Russia also responded to the recent EU sanctions and said that they could undermine any progress made at the Vienna talks.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during his recent visit to Tehran said, “if there is a lack of coordination in the EU, and the right-hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing, it is simply a disaster.” He also added, “but if this decision is deliberately made in the midst of the negotiations that are continuing in Vienna to save the JCPOA, then it is no longer a problem, it’s already a mistake, which, as you know, is worse than a crime.” Lavrov also insisted that the United States should lift the sanctions on Iran including those targeting foreign firms that cooperate with Tehran. According to Lavrov, this step is critical if Washington wants to revive the nuclear deal. Iran in recent years has strengthened its ties with Moscow as a strategic counterweight to the United States. Russia supports Tehran to ensure that the United States does not have the upper hand to stipulate terms and conditions to revive the nuclear deal. Moscow has rejected the Biden administration’s proposal of “JCPOA plus” calling it “wrong and inconvenient.” Russia believes that only a full return to Security Council Resolution 2231 without any changes remains the “way out of the current situation.”
Iran’s human rights abuses and international law violations remain a serious concern for the international community. Despite this concern, recent responses from Iranian officials reveal Tehran’s lack of intent to improve the country’s human rights conditions, especially amid worsening state-society relations. In the current context, Iran is likely to resort to more aggression and threats in the coming days to create a tense atmosphere while talks continue in Vienna to pressurize the United States to lift the sanctions and return to the 2015 nuclear deal.