June 20, 2010 | The Guardian

EU Must Forgo Commercial Interests to Help Iran’s Green Movement

Iran Revolutionary Guards Members of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps march during a military parade in Tehran. Photograph: Morteza Nikoubazl/Reuters/Reuters

Yesterday, European Union leaders gathered in Brussels and approved a new round of sanctions targeting Iran's financial and energy sectors, with a special focus on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the paramilitary organisation that dominates most of Iran's business and brutally suppresses the country's democratic opposition. The IRGC is said by experts to control as much as 80% of foreign trade.

While the new sanctions build on last week's UN resolution compelling Iran to pull the plug on its illicit nuclear programme, they also give cause for hope that the EU will no longer subjugate human rights to commercial interests.

The EU now has a month to hammer out the details of its leaders' decision. It must ensure that the new sanctions not only target the Iranian regime and its nuclear proliferation efforts, but offer much-needed support to the embattled opposition.

Take the example of the Finnish-German telecommunications giant, Nokia-Siemens Networks, which supplied sophisticated surveillance technology to Iran, enabling President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's security apparatus (the IRGC) to monitor and stifle internet usage, as well as mobile phone communications, among pro-democracy activists last year. Nokia-Siemens Networks is still furnishing the regime with “interception” technology, and bizarrely, even Rolf Timans, the EU's representative for human rights and democratisation, vehemently opposes legislation which would ban telecommunications deals that bolster's Iran's anti-democratic conduct.

The EU has an amazing opportunity to block the distribution of “dual-use” technologies, which, as with Nokia-Siemens' equipment, can be used for both civilian and military purposes. It is equally important that the EU supply Iranian dissidents with technology that enables them to circumvent web censorship and software that can bypass the regime's firewalls.

The EU has made scarcely any efforts to cultivate free information inside Iran. Europe should strengthen the broadcast of its existing Farsi-language news services, including the Prague-based Radio Farda and the BBC Persian service. Creating independent new outlets in the Iranian diaspora that broadcast shows, popular cultural programming and music into Iran can strengthen the forces of democratic change.

Germany plays a particularly pivotal role in influencing the Iranian regime's behavior. Renate Heike Rampf of the German Lesbian and Gay Federation captured this neatly when she urged Germany's first openly gay foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, to use the country's economic pressure to stop Iran from executing homosexuals. “Iran is not indifferent to what Germany says. It can save lives. The federal government must make it clear to the regime that the death penalty must be abolished,” said Rampf.

However, Germany is the Iranians' largest EU trading partner – exporting €3.71bn (£3.1bn) of goods and services to Iran in 2009 – and last year, the German economics ministry approved 48 dual-use (which also can be used for military goals) goods shipments to Iran. Germany remains a hostage of its German-Iran Chamber of Commerce. Michael Tockuss, one of the Chamber's chief executives, remarked after the latest EU measure: “We don't think sanctions, generally, are helpful … at least not to achieve political goals.”

But for Mohsen Makhmalbaf, a prominent Iranian film-maker who serves as a sort of spokesman for the Green movement, the need to increase global economic pressure on the Iranian regime and the IRGC cannot be emphasised enough. “If they want peace in the Middle East,” Makhmalbaf says, “they need a democratic government in Iran. Pressure from inside and pressure from outside can change things.”

The IRGC, which was largely responsible for the violent crackdown against the Green movement during widespread protests after Iran's disputed presidential election last year, controls vast amounts of the Iranian economy. Broad swaths of the of pro-democracy movement in Iran, spanning the spectrum from women and trade unionists to Kurds, Baha'i, and gays and lesbians, face vicious persecution from the IRGC, and they would all surely welcome a tougher EU posture toward the Iranian regime.

If the EU were to complement its strategy to end Iran's unlawful nuclear programme with a strategy to promote human rights, it could give the country's vibrant pro-democracy movement a shot in the arm instead of a shot in the gut.