Engagement and constructive dialogue, albeit conditional, are the leitmotif that have driven the European strategy towards Iran for the past three decades. While this is likely to continue being the case, the fear of being back to the future, in a situation in which such approach yielded limited results, might lead to a new and different stage in the EU-Iran relations moving forwards.
European countries established relations with the newly-founded Islamic Republic only ten years after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, when Ayatollah Khomeini, the father of the Revolution, died and President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani started advocating for better ties with the world, including with Europe. This led to the establishment of bilateral relations between European capitals and Tehran, but also to the launch of a joint European Union (EU)’s policy on Iran based on engagement.
Between 1992 and 2002, the “critical dialogue” first and the “comprehensive dialogue” afterwards aimed at a constructive discussion on issues such as human rights, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, the Middle East Peace Process and drug trafficking with Iran. Economic cooperation was also a crucial element of the EU diplomatic strategy toward Iran.
The policy advanced by European member states was not unconditional and, when the perception was that progress was not being made or that Iran was violating international norms, such as after the verdict of the Mykonos trial in 1997, dialogue was suspended. However, the overall view within the EU remained that completely breaking off relations would have been a mistake and would have decreased the chances of changing Iran’s behaviour, in the region and within the country.
It is in this context that, even when the nuclear crisis erupted in early 2003, the EU, led mainly by the UK, France and Germany (also known as the E3), chose to maintain its relations with Tehran. For almost twelve years, the EU negotiated with Tehran in an attempt to reach a peaceful solution to the nuclear dossier, while at the same time halting discussions on all other matters.
One of the main drivers of the European strategy towards Iran, both before and after the nuclear crisis, was the desire to provide an alternative to the US approach, which, following the Revolution, focused on isolating and containing the Iranian regime.
The dialogue established by the EU in the 1990s thus clashed with the so-called dual containment policy that the US adopted towards both Baghdad and Tehran, leading to substantial frictions between the two sides. The main one, in 1996, was triggered by the implementation of the US extraterritorial sanctions against Iran and resulted in the adoption of various countermeasures by the EU which ended up weakening the impact of the American legislation, but also the European approach, escalating tensions across the Atlantic.
Similarly, the E3 initiative in 2003 conflicted with the US preference for a confrontational stance towards the Iranian nuclear issue, either through the imposition of sanctions or through a military escalation of the crisis. For more than two years, the US opposition to the European strategy inherently led to a weakening of the E3’s negotiating positions vis-à-vis Tehran, hampering their chances to reach a successful outcome.
The only period during which the EU and the US managed to work collaboratively on Iran was between 2006 and 2016. The joint dual track policy, combining pressure (advocated by the US) with dialogue (promoted) and implemented thorough the framework of the E3/EU+3 (also known as the P5 plus one and composed of the US, France, the UK, China, Russia and Germany), is what ultimately led to the successful announcement of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in July 2015.
The agreement was and is still viewed by EU countries not only as a constructive solution to the international stand-off over Iran’s nuclear programme, but also as an opportunity to reprise the broader dialogue which was suspended back in 2003. Over the past four years, the Iran Task Force at the European External Action Service has tried to achieve this goal and has expanded the conversation with Tehran to issues such as human rights, nuclear safety and regional security.
Once again, such dialogue has been conditional and complemented by sanctions when Iran has been deemed as behaving against European security interests. The latest example is the adoption, in early January, of EU sanctions against Iran in response to the country’s alleged assassination plots in France and Denmark. Despite the challenges arising, however, the overall engagement policy towards Iran and its long-term benefits are not being questioned across Europe. What is being questioned, since early 2017, is the chance of success.
Under the presidency of Donald Trump, the US has chosen to revert its policy towards Tehran to one driven by confrontation and isolation, abandoning the joint approach advanced with the EU for more than a decade. The decision to withdraw from the JCPOA and to reimpose extraterritorial sanctions against Iran, in particular, has meant that the EU and the US are now pursuing overtly conflicting policies, which similar to the 1990s and early 2000s, prompt transatlantic tensions.
The EU’s response, so far, has been to try and preserve its own interests by implementing countermeasures to the US legislation, such as the EU Blocking Statute and the Special Purpose Vehicle. While these steps are a clear indication of the continued European stance on Iran, in particular, on the JCPOA, lessons from the past indicate that, by themselves and without the US support, they might be insufficient to achieve the intended goals, i.e. save the nuclear deal and influence Iran’s behaviour in the region and within the country via engagement. Whether this will lead, for the first time since the Iranian Revolution, to a different stage in EU-Iran relations remains to be seen, but the fear of being back to the future is definitely going to affect calculations in both Tehran and European capitals in the months to come.