Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša recently demanded an international inquiry on the executions of Iranian political prisoners back in 1988, referring to the new Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s alleged role in this dark chapter of the country’s history. Janša made the comments in July, during a video address for the annual Free Iran World Summit, organized by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NRCI), an opposition organization that aims to overthrow Iranian theocratic rulers.
The NRCI is considered the political wing of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), which is designated as a terrorist group by Iran, but not by the West, as the EU and the US have removed the MEK from their list of terror organizations.
During the Iraq-Iran war, the group fought on the side of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and according to the Iranian government, it has taken part in a bloody “repression of Shiite Muslims in southern Iraq in 1991 and the massacre of Iraqi Kurds.” The group lost much of its credibility among Iranians, while some have described the group as a “cult.”
The Iranian government was outraged by Janša’s speech, and by the appearance of former EU and US politicians, such as Mike Pompeo, as well as current Senators Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Roy Blunt (R-MO), and Ted Cruz (R-TX).
The fact that Slovenia is currently holding the rotating EU Council presidency, caused Janez Janša’s words to echo much farther than one would expect.
While the comments made by Janša, who represents one of the smallest EU member nations, would usually go unnoticed, the fact that Slovenia is currently holding the rotating EU Council presidency, caused his words to echo much farther than one would expect. Janša’s speech forced Joseph Borrell, the EU’s Foreign Policy Chief, to respond, after Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called him seeking clarification on the EU’s position on the matter. Borrell distanced the bloc from Janša’s comments, saying: “even if he’s [Janša] from the country that holds the rotating Council presidency — he does not represent the position of the European Union.” He added that only the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, could represent the EU at the level of heads of state and government.
Janša’s comments about the Iranian people “deserving democracy, freedom, and human rights” may seem like the wake-up call of a progressive European leader, sincerely devoted to justice, but one should not be misled. Indeed, such remarks alluding to a sudden care for ordinary Iranians, have been made by the rising star of the European far-right, whose rhetoric lately has even overshadowed his ideological “godfather” and patron—the infamous Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban.
The 62-year-old Janez Janša was appointed as a Prime Minister of Slovenia in March 2020, his third stint as Chief of the Executive. Since 1993, this Trump-loving political veteran has been the undisputed leader of the Slovene Democratic Party (SDS), which over the years has moved towards the far-right, adopting anti-immigrant rhetoric and often using hate speech and insults against its critics—especially journalists, both local and international. For example, calling them “outdated prostitutes” or accusing them of being “instructed not to tell the truth.” He and the SDS have regularly targeted marginal groups such as the LGBT community, as well as ethnic minorities from former Yugoslavia. He has also been the proponent of historical revisionism, expressing sympathies towards WW2 Nazi collaborators in the country.
Janša’s leadership style has triggered serious friction with the EU institutions after they expressed growing concerns over the rule-of-law violation attempts to curb media freedom in Slovenia.
While relatively unknown to the broader European public for a long time, Janša has made many headlines since taking the seat of Prime Minister. He was perhaps the only world leader to prematurely congratulate Donald Trump on his “victory” after the US presidential election last November, and among the last to congratulate Joe Biden. The series of diplomatic blunders continued in the opening ceremony of the Slovenian EU Council presidency, culminating with Commission Executive Vice President Frans Timmermans’ refusal to appear in a photo with Slovenian ministers, during the event. Janša’s hawkish Minister of Interior, Aleš Hojs, responded to this situation with a puzzling comment about the “swine” who “sit in the EU’s highest bureaucracy.”
The majority of Slovenian media and opposition parties have expressed their disagreement with Janša’s style of leading the EU presidency.
The majority of Slovenian media and opposition parties have expressed their disagreement with Janša’s style of leading the EU presidency, including the latest Iranian episode. Furthermore, Borell’s response to Janša’s speech may be translated as another fiasco of Slovenian foreign policy and the EU Council presidency under Janša.
Speaking to Inside Arabia, Tina Čuček Šmid, Head of PR with the opposition Social Democrats of Slovenia, said that the disgraceful and many times dangerous statements and actions of Janez Janša are currently the sad reality of Slovenia’s chaotic and uncoordinated foreign politics. His actions, in her view, however, reflect neither the values nor interests of Slovenia and its citizens. “Moving further away from Europe’s core in terms of values and actions is a huge problem for Slovenia and can only be resolved internally via early election,” she added.
As for Marko Lovec, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences for the University of Ljubljana, Janša’s recent comments about Iran are related to his aspiration to be recognized as a valuable member of a certain right-wing international network (probably hoping to get some support in return), and to gain international standing and legitimacy after being marginalized as a nationalist-populist within Slovenia and the EU.
Moreover, Čuček-Šmid explained that Janša’s Iran related remarks could have been made to distract the domestic public from other matters. She believes the Slovenian Prime Minister knew that his government would lose an important referendum held on the same weekend that his statement had been delivered at the problematic Summit. “It is already well-established practice of Janez Janša to create a smokescreen by using an international podium, to avoid real issues at home,” she said.
But despite the damage done, especially for Slovenia – whose international reputation has nosedived under the Janša’s reign – Lovec thinks that the EU presidencies no longer directly cover strategic and foreign policy issues, as the EU now has its own “foreign minister” (Borrell) and head of European council (Michel). Thus, “while prime ministers of presiding countries play a certain political role in coordinating the work of ministers heading the negotiation over packages of domestic EU legislation, Janša’s recent acts do not have much to do with EU foreign policy,” he told Inside Arabia.
Nevertheless, some foreign observers expressed concerns over recent Janša’s statements, as they certainly do not contribute to a dialogue with Iran, at a time when several EU members – with the Union’s blessing – are trying to solve the tensions over Iran’s nuclear program and to resurrect the related agreement.
Lovec also agrees that Janša’s acts do not help to get Iran and Atlantic partners back to the table. He is convinced that Janša himself “does not care much about the deal or the MENA [Middle East and North Africa] region in general, but instability and crises are always a good opportunity for populists-nationalists.” Lovec offers an interesting perspective that if anti-nuclear deal groups need Janša to speak for them, this actually shows that they are not particularly strong within the EU and that they have a legitimacy issue of their own. In his opinion, “praising illiberal democracy while calling for the protection of human rights is a certain paradox.”
Slovene Social Democrats firmly believe that that key decision makers at the European and global stage understand the overall irrelevance of Janez Janša.
Furthermore, Slovene Social Democrats firmly believe that that key decision makers at the European and global stage understand the overall irrelevance of Janez Janša and that “his actions cannot be taken seriously as it is clear, he represents neither the majority of the citizens of Slovenia, nor the voice of the European Union.” Therefore, Lovec does not expect any significant reaction from the EU since Janša was speaking on his own behalf. In fact, he noted that any criticism would actually work in favor of Janša, as the EU would recognize his importance by criticizing him.
Still, although Janša is currently leading a minority government supported by no more than about a quarter of citizens, and facing regularly held demonstrations in Slovenia’s capital Ljubljana, it would not be a surprise to hear more from him. Ever since his appearance at the NRCI’s summit, for example, he has continued with anti-Iranian tweets. However, while Janša is expected to follow his narrative to preserve power in Slovenia, regardless of the cost or consequences, Tina Čuček Šmid does not believe that he can threaten real efforts for peace and non-proliferation, for it is clear that his domestic and international credibility is already on the lowest possible point, if it exists at all.
Still, and despite his apparent irrelevance on the world stage, his uncoordinated solo moves may further discredit the image of the EU and his home country. This may pose an obstacle for the EU’s future policies towards sensitive issues, where sophisticated diplomatic language is highly desirable. Iranian and Middle Eastern hot spots certainly require a cautious and skillful approach that less savvy far-right politicians like Janša, cannot deliver.