EU Quietly Turning the Heat on Iran

A staff member removes the Iranian flag from the stage after a group picture with officials during the Iran nuclear talks in Vienna, Austria in July 2015. (Reuters)
A staff member removes the Iranian flag from the stage after a group picture with officials during the Iran nuclear talks in Vienna, Austria in July 2015. (Reuters)

EU Quietly Turning the Heat on Iran

A staff member removes the Iranian flag from the stage after a group picture with officials during the Iran nuclear talks in Vienna, Austria in July 2015. (Reuters)
A staff member removes the Iranian flag from the stage after a group picture with officials during the Iran nuclear talks in Vienna, Austria in July 2015. (Reuters)

Last month when US President Donald Trump called for a renegotiation of the so-called Iran nuclear deal, Tehran, the European Union, Russia and China responded with a chorus of “No! No!” and dismissed Trump’s move as “totally unacceptable.”

Trump, however, set the clock ticking by fixing a 120-day delay in which those involved in the “nuke deal” should come up with a clear agenda for renegotiation.

With the clock ticking, the thunderous “no! no!” became a sotto voce “well, maybe!”

Last week, EU Commissioner Johannes Hahn surprised everyone by announcing that the Commission, in consultation with Britain, France and Germany, is “closely studying President Trump’s statement and its consequences.”

More importantly, Hahn revealed that the EU had raised the issue of fresh negotiation during a brief visit to Brussels by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif. Special focus on projected talks would be on “Tensions in the Middle East, Iran’s ballistic missiles projects and end of the year the mass protests in Iran.”

It is significant that the EU’s nuanced response to Trump’s statement has come from Commissioner Hahn and not the union’s official foreign policy spokesperson Ms. Federica Mogherini, who is regarded as a passionate advocate of the Islamic Republic.

The impression that the EU is moving towards Trump’s position, at least half-way, was reinforced when, according to the Financial Times, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel telephoned US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to signal the EU’s readiness to engage Iran in talks on Tehran’s missile projects and regional ambitions. Gabriel went further to claim that Iran had expressed its readiness for new talks during Zarif’s visit to Brussels.

Though Iran denied those reports, it did not call in the German Ambassador to Tehran for “explanations”, a routine move in the diplomatic sphere. The reports were given additional weight when the German Foreign Ministry refused to deny them.

“The world has three months in which to find a compromise,” says Farid Vashani, an analyst of Iran’s foreign relations. “Trump has said this may be the last time he signs a waiver on the Iran nuclear deal. He could, of course, do a Frank Sinatra and have another last time in three months’ time. But that is unlikely. The Europeans, Russia and China will have to give him something not to throw the whole thing out of the window.”

But, what could the EU, and others, give Trump?

The first item would be the reassertion for the fact that the “deal”, known as the Comprehensive Joint Plan of Action (CJPOA) is an implicit verbal understanding with no legal basis and thus capable of countless reinterpretations.

This was pointed out in some detail in an editorial published by the Tehran daily Vatan-e-Emruz.

“The totality of sanctions the US has accepted to suspend represents a small portion of sanctions imposed on Iran by the US Congress and presidential decrees,” the paper said. “At the same time there is no commitment not to impose new sanctions.”

Thus the second item on list of concessions that he EU, Russia and China could give to stop Trump from denouncing the CJPOA is to impose new sanctions on Iran related to issues not directly linked to the nuclear project.

According to reports broadcast by Manoto, a popular Iranian satellite TV channel, the EU has already decided to ban all flights by Mahan Air, Iran’s second biggest carrier by next March. Mahan Air is charged with transporting thousands of Afghan and Pakistani “volunteers for martyrdom” from Iran to fight in Syria. This violates the International Air Transport Agency (IATA) protocols under which civilian aircraft cannot be sued for military purposes. An end to Mahan Air flights would reduce Iran’s capacity to ferry troops and mercenaries to Syria and to ship arms to the Lebanese branch of “Hezbollah”.

Despite Ms. Mogherini’s lyrical praise of the Islamic Republic, the EU is coming up with other measures against Iran.

Germany has suspended the application of export guarantee rules, known as Hermes, for trade with Iran and France has toughened its trade rules known as COFACE. Under new procedures the so-called “dual use” rule would be applied to all trade with the Islamic Republic. This is supposed to prevent Iran from obtaining know-how, materiel and equipment that could have military use. But its net effect would be to slow down deliveries to Iran and increase the cost.

For its part Britain has reneged on an earlier promise to release some $500 million in Iranian frozen assets, citing “technical difficulties.”

Last week, the financial control authority in Luxembourg authorized the Clear Stream an investment firm to freeze some $4.9 billion in Iran’s assets until further notice. The firm reports that some $1.9 billion of the sums involved have already been handed over to a US court for payment to families of 241 US Marines killed by “Hezbollah” in a suicide attack in Beirut in 1983.

On a broader scale the EU has all but suspended a number of contracts already signed with Iran in the form of memorandums of understanding. The largest of these is the $5 billion deal with the French oil giant TOTAL to develop an offshore Iranian gas field. The EU Commission wants to reexamine that in detail.

In Austria, the government has refused to provide guarantees for a $1 billion loan negotiated by a private Vienna bank with Iran, making sure that no transfer of money will happen in the near future. A similar deal between Tehran and a consortium of Italian banks is likely to meet the same fate.

A number of EU members have also imposed strict limits on number of visas issued to Iranian citizens for either business or pleasure. Britain has chosen a limit of 2,000 visas a month, including hundreds issued to Islamic Republic officials and their families. Greece has imposed no limit, but is under investigation for reports that its consulate in Tehran was selling Schengen visas, allowing travel to 19 EU countries, for up to $3,000 apiece.

The emerging EU strategy seems to be aimed at persuading Trump to help keep CJPOA in place, at least in name, but make its implementation conditional to a parallel set of talks aimed at stopping Iran’s missile project, ending Iran’s intervention in the Middle East and improving respect for human rights inside Iran.

The time-limit fixed by Trump ends in March, which will coincide with date set for a review of the CJPOA by the foreign ministers of all the seven nations involved in it.

At that time Tehran would be given the option of either accepting a new set of restrictions on its military, economic and domestic policies or bang the door and walk out in anger, something that might not displease Trump.

A Year Ago, Russian Mercenary Chief Yevgeny Prigozhin Challenged the Kremlin with a Mutiny

People walk past at a makeshift memorial to Yevgeny Prigozhin near the cafe he owned in Saint-Petersburg on June 20, 2024. (AFP)
People walk past at a makeshift memorial to Yevgeny Prigozhin near the cafe he owned in Saint-Petersburg on June 20, 2024. (AFP)

A Year Ago, Russian Mercenary Chief Yevgeny Prigozhin Challenged the Kremlin with a Mutiny

People walk past at a makeshift memorial to Yevgeny Prigozhin near the cafe he owned in Saint-Petersburg on June 20, 2024. (AFP)
People walk past at a makeshift memorial to Yevgeny Prigozhin near the cafe he owned in Saint-Petersburg on June 20, 2024. (AFP)

On a lazy summer weekend a year ago, Russia was jolted by the stunning news of an armed uprising. The swaggering chief of a Kremlin-sponsored mercenary army seized a military headquarters in the south and began marching toward Moscow to oust the Defense Ministry’s leaders, accusing them of starving his force of ammunition in Ukraine.

Yevgeny Prigozhin and his soldiers-for-hire called off their "march of justice" only hours later, but the rebellion dealt a blow to President Vladimir Putin, the most serious challenge to his rule in nearly a quarter-century in power.

Prigozhin’s motives are still hotly debated, and the suspicious crash of the private jet that killed him and his top lieutenants exactly two months after the rebellion remains mired in mystery.

A look at the mutiny and its impact:

Who was Yevgeny Prigozhin? Prigozhin, an ex-convict, owned a fancy restaurant in St. Petersburg where Putin took foreign leaders. That earned Prigozhin the nicknamed of "Putin’s chef." Those ties won him lucrative government contracts, including catering for Kremlin events and providing meals and services to the military.

He founded the Wagner Group, a private military contractor, in 2014, using it to advance Russia's political interests and clout by deploying mercenaries to Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic and elsewhere. Wagner fighters provided security for African leaders or warlords, often in exchange for a share of gold mines or other natural resources.

Prigozhin gained attention in the US, where he and a dozen other Russians were indicted by the Justice Department for creating the Internet Research Agency — a "troll farm" that focused on interfering in the 2016 US presidential election. The case was later dropped.

What was Wagner's role in Ukraine? After Putin invaded Ukraine in 2022, Wagner emerged as one of the most capable of Moscow’s fighting forces. It played a key role in capturing the eastern stronghold of Bakhmut in May 2023.

Prigozhin was allowed by the Kremlin to swell Wagner's ranks with convicts, who were offered amnesty after serving six months on the front line. He said 50,000 were recruited, and 10,000 of them died in the ferocious battle for Bakhmut.

The war added to Wagner's reputation for brutality. In a video that surfaced in November 2022, a former Wagner mercenary who allegedly defected to the Ukrainian side but later was captured by Russia, was shown being beaten to death with a sledgehammer, the mercenary group's symbol.

What led to the uprising? For months in 2023, Prigozhin complained bitterly about the military brass denying his forces the needed ammunition in Ukraine. In open political infighting, he blasted then-Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and General Staff chief Gen. Valery Gerasimov in profane rants on social media, blaming them for military setbacks and accusing them of corruption.

The Defense Ministry's order for Wagner to sign contracts with the regular military appeared to be the final trigger for Prigozhin's extraordinary rebellion on June 23-24.

His mercenaries swiftly took over Russia’s southern military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, reportedly hoping to capture Shoigu and Gerasimov. But they weren't there.

Prigozhin ordered his forces to roll toward Moscow, saying it wasn't a military coup but a "march of justice" to unseat his foes. The mercenaries downed several military aircraft en route, killing over a dozen pilots. Security forces in Moscow went on alert and checkpoints were set up on the southern outskirts.

At the height of the crisis, Putin went on TV and called the rebellion by his onetime protege a "betrayal" and "treason." He vowed to punish those behind it.

But Prigozhin abruptly aborted the march hours later in an amnesty deal brokered by Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko. The mercenary forces were offered a choice of moving to Belarus, retiring from service or signing contracts with the Russian Defense Ministry.

Prigozhin later said he launched the uprising after he "lost his temper" in the infighting with his foes. Some commentators said he apparently hoped to persuade Putin to take his side against the military brass — a grave miscalculation.

What was Prigozhin's fate? On Aug. 23, two months to the day after the rebellion, a business jet carrying Prigozhin, 62, and his top associates crashed while flying from Moscow to St. Petersburg, killing all seven passengers and a crew of three.

State investigators have yet to say what caused the crash.

A preliminary US intelligence assessment concluded there was an intentional explosion on board. Western officials pointed to a long list of Putin foes who have been assassinated.

The Kremlin has denied involvement and rejected Western allegations that Putin was behind it as an "absolute lie."

Prigozhin was buried in his hometown of St. Petersburg in a private ceremony.

What has happened to Wagner? Several thousand Wagner mercenaries moved to a camp in Belarus after the mutiny. Soon after Prigozhin's death, most left that country to sign contracts with the Russian military to redeploy to Africa or return to fighting in Ukraine. Only a handful stayed in Belarus to train its military.

Russian authorities formed a Wagner successor, Africa Corps, using it to expand military cooperation with countries there. Moscow has emerged as the security partner of choice for a number of African governments, displacing traditional allies like France and the United States.

Elements of Wagner and other private security companies continue to operate in Ukraine under the control of the Defense Ministry and the Russian National Guard.

"Despite the spectacular demise of Prigozhin himself and the problems that Wagner got itself into as a result of that, the model — the idea of a private company profiting from this war — is one that is attractive to a lot of people in Russia," said Sam Greene of the Center for European Policy Analysis.

How has Putin responded since the uprising? Prigozhin’s demise sent a chilling message to Russia's elites, helping Putin contain the damage to his authority inflicted by the rebellion.

A crackdown continued on his political foes, with many either fleeing the country or ending up in prison. His biggest opponent, Alexei Navalny, died in an Arctic penal colony in February.

In a stage-managed election in March, Putin won another six-year term. In a subsequent Cabinet shakeup, Putin dismissed Prigozhin’s archfoe, Shoigu, as defense minister, replacing him with Andrei Belousov, an economics expert. Shoigu, who had personal ties with Putin, was given the high-profile post of secretary of Russia’s Security Council.

"If Shoigu’s new job had been too junior, it would have been humiliating, and could have triggered such criticism of the outgoing minister as to highlight the army’s weaknesses: something to be avoided in wartime," Tatiana Stanovaya of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, said in a commentary.

At the same time, Shoigu's entourage faced purges. A longtime associate and deputy, Timur Ivanov, and several other senior military officers were arrested on corruption charges, and other senior Defense Ministry officials lost their jobs.

Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff and another Prigozhin foe, has kept his job so far.

Gen. Sergei Surovikin, who reportedly had close ties with Prigozhin, was stripped of his post as deputy commander of forces in Ukraine and given a ceremonial position. Surovikin, credited with creating the multilayered defensive lines and fortifications that blunted Ukraine’s offensive a year ago, wasn’t dismissed altogether, and some observers suggest he could eventually be given a new military post.