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Ali Khamenei Supreme Leader of Iran © Beyt Rahbari/Wikicommons

Iran’s presidential election is set for June 18, 2021, but the debate over possible candidates began as early as May 2019, when Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei drew lines indicating the direction these elections should take. Addressing a group of university students, he said, “If you, young people, prepare the ground for the formation of a young and pious government, your worries will end, and these worries are not yours alone. “

And so, the tone was set. The alliance of Iranian ‘reformists and moderates’ may find it extremely difficult to have a chance of winning the upcoming contest.

But whatever its outcome, the 2021 presidential election will undoubtedly have a direct and unprecedented political impact on the United States, Europe and the world at large.

In recent weeks, Iran has implemented a policy of ‘maximum resistance’ which has, in several areas, transformed itself into ‘maximum pressure’ on the US and on the international community.

Arak’s Khondab nuclear research site © Nrf.
Iran’s Arak heavy water reactor © Hamid Foroutan/ISNA

This policy is aimed at getting US President Biden to lift all sanctions on Iran and compensate it for the damage caused; to accept that Iran has crossed the nuclear threshold and has henceforth the capacity to produce a nuclear bomb in a short period of time, in order to rebalance the forces in the Middle East; to block European initiatives that aim to include the subject of ballistic missile development and Iranian regional expansion in a new agreement, and lastly, to guarantee the Iranian regime’s continuity.

Some of the more important and possibly worrying measures taken by the Iranian regime in order to further these aims are :


Forging ahead with nuclear development in violation of the 2015 JCPOA Treaty (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) reached between Iran and the P5+1 countries : the US, the UK, China, France and Russia plus Germany.

These actions include uranium enrichment to levels of 20% or above, including a small quantity of uranium metal at a nuclear plant in Natanz, Central Iran. Uranium metal can be used to build the core of a nuclear weapon. Iran has also used latest generation centrifuges, and ratified legislation calling for non-cooperation with the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) and expulsion of its inspectors.

President Hassan Rouhani visiting the installation of a chain of 20 advanced IR6 centrifuges started in the Natanz enrichment facility in central Iran © Aeoi

A statement has also been issued claiming that a supposed ‘fatwa’ allegedly written by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei which bans the development of nuclear technology for military purposes can be modified under certain circumstances, thereby lifting any prohibition on the use of nuclear weapons.


Launching civilian and scientific satellites into space, in order to prove Iran’s ability to manufacture long-range missiles.


Large scale demonstrations of conventional forces, conduct of extensive military exercises including the use of technologically advanced drones and suicide operations.


Iraq: attacks on US targets by means of Shiite militias.

Persian Gulf: attacks on Saudi and other targets in the Gulf by Yemeni Houthi militias.

Afghanistan: pressure on the Taliban to renege on the peace agreement reached with the Trump administration.


Maximum diplomatic pressure and seizure of Western oil tankers and arrest of foreign nationals, especially Iranians holding dual nationality, in order to use them as bargaining chips and to put pressure on the US and European countries.

It is worth emphasising the fact that Iran’s nuclear programme is a national project of the regime and that all political currents, ideologues, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the government of President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif adhere to it completely.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif © Wikipedia

The 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA) concluded with the Obama administration had been carried out in coordination and with the full consent of the entire Iranian government elite under the personal supervision of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, with the aim of advancing the strategic position of revolutionary Iran.

However, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in his first press conference in February 2021, stressed that any return of the United States to the nuclear agreement was conditional on a first step by the Iranians.

But Blinken also mentioned the possible opening of new negotiations on the Iranian ballistic programme.

As a result, it would seem that the Americans do not want to lift all the sanctions, and prefer to keep them in place as a means of leverage.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken © U.S. Embassy Nigeria

The Iranians in turn recall that it was the United States that walked away from the agreement. Therefore, they consider that it is not up to them to make the first move. Similarly, the reason Iran reactivated its nuclear programme in June 2019 is because the Americans and Europeans had not kept their commitments. That is their logic.

From their point of view, it is up to the Americans to return to the agreement and lift all sanctions; this is a sine qua non condition for Tehran to halt all measures concerning the resumption of its nuclear programme. For the Iranians, it is therefore out of the question to discuss a new agreement or regional policy or ballistic programme. It is a question of returning to the text of the 2015 deal in the presence of all the parties concerned.

They are, on the one hand, launching the idea of coordination which will probably not be seen as problematic for the moderate faction, and on the other, they are saying to the Europeans: you are not only there to defend the interests of the Americans, you are also there to maintain the agreement.

Moreover, this proposal also takes into account a concrete diplomatic and geopolitical reality. Today, it is the Europeans who are best placed to make progress on this issue.


The deteriorated state of relations between the United States on the one hand, and China and Russia on the other, prevent the latter two countries from playing such a role. Moreover, the Europeans are the ones who know the Iranian dossier best. They have been negotiating with Iran since 2002-2003 and they have always defended the agreement.

It should be emphasised that they signed it in 2015 because they saw it as a guarantee of stability in the Middle East, and that the issue of stability in that region is of great concern to EU countries.

Iran nuclear agreement in Vienna in 2015© Dragan Tatic

So now that President Biden is returning the United States to the status of a traditional ally of Europe, the Europeans are ideally placed to actively play the role of intermediary and to consolidate the agreement.

However, through various declarations made at the end of 2020 and beginning of 2021 by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, Berlin and Paris reiterated remarks that a return to the nuclear agreement should be followed by wide-ranging negotiations on ballistic missiles and regional issues and that these should necessarily involve other regional powers.

But these declarations served to harden Iran’s stance towards the project as a whole.

Sensing this unwelcome reaction, as well as Tehran’s irritation, the Europeans have again emphasised the priorities in their undertaking : that of returning Iran and the US to full compliance of the JCPOA.

The coordinator of the JCPOA Commission is none other than the EU High Representative for Foreign Policy, Josep Borrell, who not only traveled to Tehran in February 2021 to hold talks with President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif among other top officials, but also met with US Secretary of State Blinken in March 2021 during a NATO meeting in Brussels. They discussed, among other important issues of foreign policy and security, the return by the US and Iran to the JCPOA.

EU High Representative for Foreign Policy, Josep Borrell and Iranian President Rouhani © Office of the Iranian Presidency

However, since then, a number of political analysts have warned that Iran’s hardline factions such as the Revolutionary Guards Corps and politicians close to supreme leader Khamenei may prefer that sanctions not be lifted before the June election.

This is obviously aimed at preventing any advantage or credit going to the moderate and reformist candidates.

But there is also a much darker side to this. Iran is experiencing the same phenomena that other countries under severe sanctions have experienced in the past. The governments and key institutions within these countries very often manage to find ways to not only work around the sanctions but to actually benefit from them. They end up having what is known as a ‘sanctions economy’.

The Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the military are in control of Iran’s borders and as a result, it is they who control the highly lucrative smuggling activities that always emerge when a country comes under economic sanctions.

Much of the benefits and rewards of that activity end up in the pockets of the IRGC or at least elements of the IRGC and other key government structures. This is part of the reason why there are powerful elements inside Iran, on the conservative and hardline side that prefer the economy to remain under sanctions.

On the one hand it enriches them and on the other, it prevents political evolution inside the country that would undermine their power base and their standing within the Iranian political system.

The Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (I.R.G.C.) Ground Force saluting Ali Khamenei, The Supreme Leader of Iran © Nrf

That is why many of those who want to see Iran move in a more open and democratic direction see it as a necessary first step that the economy is opened up.

As long as it remains closed, it is practically impossible for the population to put real pressure on the government, simply because so much of the power of the country is concentrated in the hands of the IRGC, the military, the clergy and other elements who are benefiting from these sanctions.

In fact, President Rouhani has already accused his opponents of exacerbating the stand-off with the US in order to strengthen their hand in the upcoming electoral contest.

President Biden himself is not immune from hostility either : negative attitudes towards dialogue with Iran by many in Congress, including members of his own party risk severely constraining his room for manoeuvre.


Lately, some factions of the Iranian regime have voiced the opinion that they are in a position to force the Biden administration into accepting an upgrade in the country’s nuclear status.

The Obama administration had recognised Iran’s right to enrich uranium as part of a full nuclear fuel cycle, and now the Biden administration may be asked to approve a balance of power.

IAEA Safeguards inspectors at work © D. Calma/IAEA

It should be noted that Iran had already requested nuclear power status along the lines of the German-Japanese model from the EU3 (the United Kingdom, France and Germany, the group with which it was conducting nuclear negotiations until 2006) and from the Obama administration.

Technically, both Germany and Japan have the capability of producing a nuclear bomb, but they remain at the threshold of this possibility, as explicitly required by their constitutions.

At a meeting in Berlin on 17 February 2005 with his German counterpart Joschka Fischer, then Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi proposed the German-Japanese model as a basis for Iran-EU negotiations.

Dr. Kamal Kharazi, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran (l.), and Joschka Fischer, German Federal Foreign Minister in 2005 © Nrf

Kharrazi presented the Iranian perspective for resolving the dispute with the EU3 group and added: “peaceful nuclear plants in Germany and Japan can serve as a model for Iranian nuclear projects, and for any round of talks on the subject.”

And in 2009, during a press conference with his Japanese counterpart Hirofumi Nakasone,

Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki called for the Japanese model to be applied to other countries, including Iran. He reiterated that Iranian nuclear activity was ‘legal and peaceful’, before concluding :

“Japan has spent many years building confidence in its nuclear activities. Iran is moving in the same direction… In all the years that Japan has been building confidence, it has never been asked to stop its nuclear activities”.

Hirofumi Nakasone, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Japan and Manuchehr Mottaki Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran © Behrouz Mehri in 2009

The first indications that the Iranian regime is once more seeking to acquire the legitimacy of a nuclear power as part of a rebalancing of forces in the Middle East come from statements by members of the regime’s Expediency Discernment Council, an administrative assembly appointed by the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei which was originally set up to resolve differences or conflicts between the Parliament and various religious criteria.

They openly mention the fact that the regime needs a nuclear weapon and that, if the circumstances require it, Khamenei could modify the fatwa (which in fact does not exist) that prohibits the use of nuclear weapons.

Among these officials is Mostafa Najafi, political analyst and Secretary of the Discernment Council’s working group for foreign and international relations. In an article published in December 2020 in IRDiplomacy, the online mouthpiece of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he justifies Iran’s future request to possess nuclear weapons. He has also said :

“In times of crisis, Iran has shown that it is prone to change tactics, instead of strategies,” before adding: “Iran changes its tactics to avoid retreating from its strategies. This is an inseparable part of Iran’s strategy in the region”.

Another Iranian official, Amir Mousavi, former Iranian ambassador to France and head of the Centre for Strategic Research and International Studies which is an offshoot of the Expediency Discernment Council, has twice mentioned in interviews with Arab and Russian media, the possibility of changing the nuclear fatwa so as to be able to acquire nuclear weapons.

He also believes that statements from President Biden and his administration regarding Iran’s missiles, Iran’s regional relations and its support of resistance movements in the region are aimed at relieving internal and external pressure on the United States.

He adds : “The Iranian leadership is not in a hurry. So long as the Americans delay carrying out their obligations and lifting the sanctions, Iran will further develop its nuclear and defensive capabilities. I believe that the international community is the one that stands to lose and not Iran. Iran is calm, taking its time and putting things together. Iran does not concern itself with what Macron or others are saying”.

With strong rhetoric such as this, which is endorsed by the Supreme Leader himself, by the Revolutionary Guards and the military establishment, the task appears extremely difficult for candidates from the reformist and moderate camps in the upcoming election.

And the situation is aggravated by the general disappointment of Hassan Rouhani’s presidency, as well as the ultra-conservative stranglehold on the Guardian Council and other key decision-making bodies.

Major General Sayyed Abdolrahim Mousavi, Commander-in-Chief of the Army (first left) Brigadier General Ahmad Reza Pourdastan, Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Army (first right) Brigadier General Amir Hatami, Minister of Defence (third from left)


The reformist-backed incumbent president Hassan Rouhani has almost completely failed to implement the economic and social reforms he promised, which were central to his election campaigns in 2013 and 2017. Inflation is rampant, unemployment is high and the national currency, the rial, is in free fall.

According to the International Monetary Fund, the inflation rate is 34.2% and unemployment is 16.3 per cent. But there is a catch here : Iran’s methodology for estimating the number of people working is to count one hour of work per week as equivalent to one job !

In 2013, the year Rouhani took office, one U.S. dollar could be exchanged for 30,000 rials. In 2020, this figure had shot up to 300,000 rials, a record.

Exactly who or what is responsible for Iran’s poor economic situation is open to debate.

It is fair to say however that a combination of factors has contributed, including the ineffectiveness of the Rouhani administration, the government’s unwillingness to address social and economic injustices and inequalities, widespread corruption, the theocratic model of government that involves the supreme leader in all aspects of life, undermining the authority of the government, the U.S. sanctions regime and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Members of the Security Council unanimously adopt a resolution imposing sanction on the Islamic Republic of Iran, at UN Headquarters in New York on March 24 2007 © UN Photo/Devra Berkowitz

In the eyes of the voters however, it is the alliance of reformists and moderates that has failed to live up to its promises.

In this context, prominent political analyst and reformist academic, Sadegh Zibakalam has acknowledged that people don’t vote for the reformists anymore. In his view, given Rouhani’s record, irrespective of who the reformist candidate may be, this faction has no chance in the upcoming elections :

In a recent interview published by Persian language online news site, he said : “In my opinion, the reform front must find a way out of this situation. That is, reformists must accept that they have no choice but to criticise themselves in order to understand why people have turned away from them and why reformists are no longer popular figures. In fact, there is only one way left for this spectrum, and that is to return to the people ”.


Another factor in this downturn in the reformists’ fortunes could well be the fact that Rouhani’s brother and adviser received a five year prison sentence for corruption in 2020, and Mohammad Ali Najafi, a leading reformist figure, was convicted of murdering his wife.

Former teheran Mayor, Mohammad Ali Najafi

Both incidents have severely damaged the credibility of reformists and moderates, who were perceived as good and trustworthy people by millions of middle-class urbanites who are strongly opposed to conservatives and radicals.

Also, a moderate/reformist candidate may have little chance of becoming Iran’s next president because the Guardian Council, an ultra-conservative body charged with vetting potential candidates, will most likely disqualify the most prominent candidates from that camp, as it did before the February 2021 parliamentary elections. This decision was partly responsible for the country’s lowest voter turnout since the 1979 revolution.

Although voter turnout has traditionally been seen as a way for the Iranian system to prove its legitimacy both domestically and internationally, recent elections have shown that radicals are prioritising their consolidation of power over voter participation.

Interestingly, since becoming supreme leader, Ali Khamenei has witnessed the reign of four presidents in succession, none of them aligned with his positions.

Former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani © Wikicommons
Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad © Wikipedia

Even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013), who in his first term appeared to follow the supreme leader, publicly broke with him on a number of issues during his second term – to the point that he was disqualified in the 2017 presidential election.

Of these four presidents, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Hassan Rouhani, both from the moderate camp, and Mohammad Khatami, the de facto leader of the reformist movement, believed that interaction with the U.S. was not only possible, but in the best interest of the nation.

Yet at every opportunity, the hard line faction led by Khamenei torpedoed the U.S.-Iran rapprochement and labelled those who supported direct talks with the United States as ‘ignorant’ or ‘traitors’.

Against this backdrop, President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018, providing Khamenei and his supporters with a powerful justification for their radicalism.

President Donald J. Trump signing an Executive, entitled “Reimposing Certain Sanctions with Respect to Iran.” in 2018 White House/Shealah Craighead

There are a number of reformist candidates considered to be well placed for the 2021 presidential election. Among these figures are politicians such as Eshaq Jahangiri, Hassan Rouhani’s current first vice president and Mohammad Reza Khatami, a former deputy speaker of parliament and brother of reformist former president Mohammad Khatami.

Former parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani © Wikipedia

But while most are likely to be rejected by the Guardian Council, the reformist camp argues that the disqualification of their candidates calls into question the legitimacy of the elections, further discrediting their rivals. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is also rumoured to be entering the race, although he has indicated otherwise.

Be that as it may, this camp could support a conservative heavyweight turned moderate, who seems to be moving closer and closer to them, and with whom the reformists do not have strained relations: former parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani.

According to some reports, Larijani has made it a condition of running that he also be supported by the conservatives or, as some put it, by the ‘good traditionalists’.

Without Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s nod however, it is unlikely that a consensus among conservatives – also known as principalists – would come into force regarding their representation by Larijani.


According to a senior conservative official, a list of 15 potential candidates has been established that includes five military figures.

It had been argued that the outcome of the U.S. election would have had a significant impact on the decisions about who these candidates would be. If Donald Trump had been re-elected, they would most likely have turned to a military figure who would have been in phase with their ideas as well as those of the Supreme Leader.

Deceased Major General Qassem Soleimani (right) and Mohammad-Baqer Qualibaf © Mehdi Ghasemi/ISNA

Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, a former commander of the Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC or Pasdaran), former mayor of Tehran and current speaker of parliament, who faces a host of allegations of financial corruption, is one of the potential candidates of this faction. He is known to be obedient and has the unwavering support of Ali Khamenei. He has run for president in three previous elections.

The most prominent figures among the other potential candidates from this faction include far-right politician Said Jalili, former secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and former nuclear negotiator and Ebrahim Raissi, current supreme court judge and potential successor to Ali Khamenei as supreme leader of Iran.

Said Jalili, former secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and former nuclear negotiator © Wikicommons
Ebrahim Raissi Supreme Court judge © Wikicommons


Lately, two military-related figures have attracted particular attention : Hossein Dehghan, 63, is a former Revolutionary Guard Air Force officer and former defence minister, and Said Mohammad, commander of Khatam al-Anbiya Construction Headquarters, a giant conglomerate active in mechanical engineering, energy, mining and defence, controlled by the Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

Brigadier general Hossein Dehghan © Wikicommons
Saeed Mohammad © Nrf

Saeed Mohammad, 52, who successfully runs Khatam al-Anbiya, clearly meets supreme leader Khamenei’s definition of a dedicated revolutionary who is capable of taking over the presidency.

There had been speculation in high political spheres that had Donald Trump been reelected, Said Mohammad would have been among the favourites to win the presidency.


Iranian Qiam-1 SRBM © Nrf

In recent weeks, the Europeans have tended to move much closer to the American camp. This is in part illustrated by the intervention of the German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas who took up word for word the position of American diplomacy on the Iranian nuclear issue.

French President Emmanuel Macron also made a statement recently calling for not only greater firmness in the negotiations with Iran, but also for Saudi Arabia to be included.

So there was a sense that the Europeans were slightly moving away from their role which, at least according to their statements, was to defend the 2015 agreement.

Now, if the Europeans accept the role that Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif is asking them to play, it will be not only to defend this treaty by reminding the Iranian leaders of their obligations, but also to make the Americans understand that Tehran, if not allowed to increase oil exports due to the present sanctions, will not play the game.

However, if the Europeans are ready to play along with both sides of the fence, a positive scenario may well emerge.

Here, one must not forget that ever since 2017, France and Germany have called for a widening of the negotiations so as to include Iran’s ballistic missile programme as well as initiate discussions on its political and military role in the region. Understandibly, this has irritated Tehran to a high degree.

Some European leaders think that the American strategy is the right one, and that Europe should take advantage of this period and move quickly to negotiate a new agreement, because they think that a Europe-America alliance could be the ideal spearhead for this strategy. But the Iranians categorically refuse this scenario and have made it known for a long time.

Others across the European Union seem to feel that this would be a mistake, for two main reasons : first, the Iranians, especially the hardline factions, have still not accepted the exit from the agreement by the US in May 2018.

After all, it is the ‘hardliners’ who hold the upper hand in Iran. One only has to read the country’s newspapers to understand this; there is a very high level of distrust of the new American administration.

So, at the very least, the Iranians are waiting for the US to prove its good will by returning to the agreement and remove the sanctions. Until that happens, the Iranians will probably not agree to negotiate.

Secondly, it’s all a question of timing : one cannot do everything at once. The game needs to be calmed down first before restoring some confidence.

There are elements that seem to indicate Tehran may be ready to negotiate on its regional policy. But it would probably be best not to force the issue.

In a recent interview, Foreign Minister Zarif clearly stated that the Islamic Republic was aware that its power was a concern for neighbouring countries. He added that Iran was ready to take initiatives to establish a regional security pact. There are also initiatives by American and Saudi diplomats that seem to indicate that the Biden administration is working on a rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

US President Joe Biden © WH
Lieutenant-General Aviv Kochavi, Minister of Defence of Israel © Idf

So, if the Americans play a facilitating role, it can circumvent the problem of tensions in the region and give the conflicting countries time to establish a regional security pact. It is the same thing with the ballistic programme; it is hard to see the Iranians negotiating right away when they feel they are under threat of American and Israeli attacks.

Iran’s fears in this respect were starkly justified on April 11, 2021 when the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) announced a large-scale power failure – described by Tehran as an act of “cyber- terrorism” – in its uranium enrichment plant at the Shahid Ahmadi-Rochan complex in Natanz, one of the key centres of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme.

Not long after this announcement, Israel appeared to confirm claims it was behind this online attack.

Lieutenant-General Aviv Kochavi, the Israeli defence chief said : “the country’s operations in the Middle East are not hidden from the eyes of the enemy”.

Israeli public radio even took the unusual step of claiming that the Mossad had played a central role.

Natanz has long been a focal point of Israeli fears and has already suffered an explosion in July 2020 that damaged a centrifuge assembly plant. In 2010, the site was subject of a combined CIA and Mossad cyber-attack using the computer virus ‘Stuxnet’ that disrupted and delayed Iran’s nuclear programme for several years.

It was no coincidence that this incident took place only one day after a series of new, highly advanced centrifuges that can greatly speed up the production of enriched uranium, as well as uranium metal went into operation on April 10, 2021.

Be that as it may, many countries across the European Union seem to be of the opinion that the game plan should be for a relatively rapid return to the JCPOA to ensure that it is in place and safe. Therefore, whatever the outcome of the Iranian election, it will not affect any decision regarding whether or not to go back to the deal.

The Stuxnet computer virus was discovered after it was used to attack the Nuclear Natanz facility in Iran © Edm

From the US and EU points of view, this should also be done with a safe perspective in mind. Because if it so turns out that the US is back in the deal and Iranians end up electing a president who pulls Iran out of the deal, then the default will be that of the Iranians…the US is back in the deal but now it’s Iran that is causing a problem !

If the JCPOA has not been returned to and the Iranians elect a president who walks out of the deal, then it will be an Iranian walk-out of the deal three years after the US did the same. But it will still be the fault of the US for having done this in the first place.

So, the Biden team as well as the European negotiators should have a strong sense that timing is actually more important for them to get this done quickly than for the Iranian side.

There is a significant likelihood that a hardline Iranian president is elected. Much like his conservative American counterpart in 2016, he will run on a platform opposing not only the JCPOA but also possibly engagement with the US altogether.

If that were to be the case, it will complicate matters tremendously, and even more so if the JCPOA has not been returned to by then.

For instance, if Iran’s hostility with the United States were to continue and its relations with the Europeans remain strained, the country may be forced to give up its historic aim of dependence on ‘neither East nor West’ and instead move towards even more dependence on Russia for its security and China for its economy.

Ample evidence that this is no longer just a hypothesis came to light on 27 March 2021 when Iran and China concluded a strategic cooperation and trade agreement over 25 years, with somewhat mysterious contours, after several years of discussions.

All that is known about the document signed by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, is that it is, according to Tehran, a “complete roadmap”, including “political, strategic and economic clauses for 25 years of cooperation”.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif of Iran © Nrf


Regarding Europe-Iran relations, another sore topic and persistent matter of discord is the case of a number of Iranian dual nationals who are rotting in Iranian prisons.

The European Parliament, the Council of Europe as well as other official bodies in Europe have intervened regularly and persistently with Iranian authorities on the plight of these hostages.

There is little doubt that in its relations with states it considers hostile, the Islamic Republic of Iran has readily resorted to a sordid strategy known as ‘hostage diplomacy’.

The principle is devilishly simple. Often, but not always, Iranian citizens holding dual nationality who come to Iran for work, to do business or to visit their family are arbitrarily arrested and tried on trumped up charges, usually for ‘espionage’ or ‘collusion to undermine national security’.

Once the regime sentences them to long prison terms, they then make it clear to the authorities of the Western state concerned that the convicted person could be the subject of a barter, to be exchanged for an agent of the regime for example, convicted and imprisoned in the country concerned. And this method has already borne fruit on a number of occasions.

The latest example concerns Kylie Moore-Gilbert who was released in November 2020, after spending two years in an Iranian prison.

Kylie Moore-Gilbert ©

Aged 33, the Australian-British researcher who is a specialist in the Middle East, had been arrested in 2018 at Tehran airport and sentenced to ten years in prison for ‘espionage’ for Israel. Her release was obtained in exchange for that of three Iranians convicted of an attempted bombing of Israeli diplomats in 2012 in Thailand. Bangkok agreed to release them, presumably at Australia’s request.

At least twenty people, many of them dual nationals are being detained under highly dubious pretexts in order to serve as ‘bargaining chips’.

This is the case of Franco-Iranian researcher Fariba Adelkhah, sentenced to five years for undermining national security.

The 61-year-old anthropologist, a specialist of Shia Islam, was arrested in Tehran in July 2019 along with her companion. Roland Marchal, also a researcher, was released in March 2020 in exchange for an Iranian engineer arrested in Nice, France and whose extradition was requested by the United States, for trafficking in sensitive materials.

Fariba Adelkhah © Wikipedia

Regarding Fariba Adelkhah’s eventual release, things look much more complicated. First of all, she holds dual nationality which is not recognised under Iranian law and secondly, it is thought that the counterpart to her release would be Assadollah Assadi, an Iranian intelligence agent posing as a diplomat.

He was tried and convicted in Belgium in February 2021 for an attempted attack on Iranian opponents in Paris in 2018. And Belgian justice is not at the order of Paris…

Assadollah Assadi © Nrf

Probably, the most high profile case is that of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, an Iranian-British charity worker who was detained at Tehran airport in April 2016 as she and her daughter were about to board their flight back to London. In September of the same year, she was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for allegedly ‘plotting to topple the Iranian government’.

Following a high-profile campaign launched by her husband Richard Ratcliffe in 2017, the then British Prime Minister Theresa May intervened vigorously with Iranian authorities. These efforts were followed up by current Prime Minister Boris Johnson, as well as countless other European political figures.

There have been repeated calls for Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release by the European Parliament, the US Congress and the Canadian Parliament among many other European governments, as well as international organisations.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe pictured shortly after she was allowed to leave prison on furlough in March 2020. “Nazanin may become ‘bargaining chip’ in Iran nuclear deal, says her husband” © Free Nazanin
Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe with her husband Richard Ratcliffe and daughter Gabriella before her arrest © Nrf


Many believe the fate of these detained dual nationals may probably be linked in some way to the actions of the United States and the European nations concerned, in the run up to the June 2021 election, and of course, the outcome of that contest.

In a recent telephone conversation between British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the Iranian president, the utterance of a few words by Hassan Rouhani during an otherwise routine call, clearly pointed to this possibility.

At one point during the call, Rouhani said he found it “strange” that the UK had “not yet made progress in paying this forty-year-old debt”.

According to a statement from the Iranian presidency, Rouhani then added :

“Accelerating the payment of this debt to Iran would undoubtedly be helpful in resolving other problems in bilateral relations”.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani (R) meets with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on the sidelines of the 74th United Nations General Assembly in New York, September 24, 2019 © Iran Presidency

For Richard Ratcliffe as well as many political analysts, she is a hostage in a sinister political game concerning an old debt contracted by the United Kingdom when the Shah of Iran purchased £400m (467 million euros) worth of Chieftain battle tanks from Britain between 1971 and 1976. Out of the 1,500 tanks and 250 repair vehicles ordered, only 185 were delivered to Tehran.

But then in 1979 the Shah was ousted following the Islamic Revolution. London refused to deliver the rest of the order and kept the money. In fact, this sum is to be added to £976m of Iranian assets already frozen in Britain.

On 10 March 2021, Boris Johnson in another conversation with Hassan Rouhani again called for the “immediate release” of all detained British-Iranian dual nationals and the return of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, according to a Downing Street statement.

The British leader considered “totally unacceptable” the current situation of Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who “must be allowed to return to her family in the UK”.

While the Biden administration wishes to resume nuclear negotiations with the Islamic Republic by extending them to include precision ballistic missiles, Iran has so far refused to do so, setting up its defence as an uncrossable red line. The mandate of the current president Hassan Rouhani is limited to the resumption of talks within the framework of the Vienna nuclear agreement, with the Supreme Leader – himself a hardliner – wanting to ensure that the conservatives are in a position to control any extension of the agreement.

The upcoming presidential election should probably be seen as an attempt between rival factions, particularly the IRGC on the one hand and the technocrats represented by Rouhani and Zarif on the other, to prepare for the post-Khamenei era.

While neither the United States nor the European Union can decide on the outcome of this election, they can, should they wish to, affect the climate in which they take place.

And that climate can in turn impinge upon voters’ intentions and attitudes come election day.

To convince voters to renew their trust, the alliance of reformists and moderates needs to send a strong signal to the country’s economy. An economy on its last legs and a suffering population, disappointed with Hassan Rouhani’s promises to “see the money from the nuclear deal on their dinner table.”

Voting Iranians © Nrf

Low voter turnout in Iranian elections has always been favourable to conservatives. If the reformists want to have a chance to win the presidential election, it is essential for them that Iranian voters turn out in large numbers despite the deep discontent among the population due to the economic and health crisis.

In this context, the European Union can also play an active and decisive role during the very short time that remains. A rapid resumption of negotiations and a partial lifting of sanctions before the presidential election will have an essential impact on its outcome.

An election of strategic importance for Iran and the Middle East, but also for Europe and its allies, as well as the rest of the world.

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