As the current Covid-19 pandemic demonstrates, local health issues have the potential to evolve into transnational challenges and full-fledged international security crises. This situation imposes once more a rethinking of the concept of security at the global level, bringing its nontraditional dimensions into the analysis. For the European Union, in particular, the need to broaden its scope on security is intertwined with the need to reassert its role on the global stage, putting forward a distinctive model of action able to differentiate it from both the US and China, the two great powers which are currently vying for leadership in the post-pandemic international system.
Developing a human security approach to Iran, one of the countries that has most severely been hit by the pandemic, represents an opportunity for the EU to revive its normative power, revive multilateralism, and assert autonomy vis-à-vis the United States when the latter’s actions threaten European security and economic interests.
Before the pandemic took hostage our lives and the world political agenda, the EU was struggling to ensure the survival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), severely jeopardized by the US withdrawal and subsequent implementation of a strict sanctions regime. The Union’s inability and unwillingness to put in place mechanisms to effectively shield its companies from the restrictive measures taken by the US Treasury Department, however, has exposed the EU’s limited international role as well as the limited scope of its foreign policy. Despite strong verbal commitment to preserving the JCPOA and salvaging dialogue with Iran, which the EU considers an interest to protect, little concrete action has been put forward to actually ensure the correct implementation of the JCPOA. As this led Iran to implement a strategy of “gradual withdrawal”, the E3 had to trigger the Dispute Resolution Mechanism envisaged by the deal, while on the horizon looms the end of the international arms embargo, which is likely to trigger another EU-US crisis.
Then came the Covid-19 pandemic. Iran has been facing one of the world’s biggest outbreaks, becoming the most affected country in the Middle East. Confirmed cases of coronavirus in the country exceed 100,000, while the casualties are more than 6,000. The Iranian health system has showed a certain degree of resilience, but its overall response capacity has been hampered by international sanctions. In addition, the lockdown put into place – although partial – is likely to inflict a severe toll on the Iranian economy, already harmed by the embargo and facing poor perspectives of a quick recovery. The High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, urged the international community to help Iran in its fight against the pandemic, and claimed that Brussels would support the request for help made by Iran to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
The EU has committed to send €20 million in humanitarian aid to Iran, while on March 31 INSTEX, the Special Purpose Vehicle originally unveiled in January 2019, finally concluded its first transaction to facilitate the export of medical goods from Europe to Iran.
While these steps are helpful, they should be accompanied by other actions such as those outlined in this article: implementing a deeper cooperation in production and exchange of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), putting pressure on the US to strengthen the humanitarian exemptions in its sanctions and to temporarily allow Tehran to access Iranian foreign currency reserves, urging Washington to issue comfort letters to European banks that already conduct enhanced due diligence on trade with Iran. On top of all that, the Union needs to differentiate its approach from the United States’. While Washington implements a politicization of human and health security issues, as evidenced by its doubling down on sanctions on Iran aimed at adding to the Covid-19-related pressure, the EU should step up to the plate and push for a broader definition of security.
This means reviving the debate on human security that took off in the early 2000s with the work of the Human Security Study Group and its 2004 Barcelona Report, claiming that “‘the most appropriate role for Europe in the twenty-first century would be to promote human security”. Today, in an age marked by the new assertiveness of a few powerful actors, and the emergence of nationalism and anti-globalism in the political and public discourses of many countries, a renewed emphasis on human security should stem not from the faith in an enlightenment mission and the will to protect individuals from the state, but from the acknowledgement that present-day challenges are more and more cross-cutting and transnational in their nature, and there is a need to protect individuals from challenges that cut across national borders. A renewed EU approach to human security, therefore, should promote a different perspective on other types of security problems, in addition to traditional conflicts. In this sense, the European engagement with Iran should be reviewed so as to provide a framework for cooperation that entails security in all its dimensions, spanning from nuclear and military security – hence the dialogue on Iranian nuclear and ballistic missiles programs – to “softer” dimensions such as health, food and environmental security.
In order to do this, however, the EU should develop a stronger agency in its foreign, security, and defense policy. The current coronavirus crisis is leading EU member states and institutions to focus on how to manage the crisis and how to mitigate its political and economic effects within the borders of the EU. This is of course a priority, and a test bench for the consolidation of the EU’s crisis management capabilities, as well as an opportunity for closer integration. However, the current inward-looking approach should not obscure the need to closely scrutinize what happens outside the borders of the EU, and to develop a coherent support and crisis-management approach towards neighboring countries. The incumbent self-declared “geopolitical Commission” has an opportunity to step up and establish itself as an effective global actor by developing a holistic approach to security that takes into consideration non-traditional challenges that, as we have seen with the coronavirus pandemic, have the potential to evolve into transnational security crises. Iran is a perfect case in point: a country badly in need of a new framework for cooperation, one addressing both “soft” and “hard” security issues, building on the dialogue established in the aftermath of the JCPOA, and doubling down on humanitarian assistance towards a population plagued by the combined effect of the sanctions and the pandemic. A more stable and resilient Iran should be viewed not only as a goal per se – one sharply divergent from the US-led destabilization attempts – but also as a prerequisite for stabilizing other areas which are crucial to the EU security interests, such as Afghanistan and Yemen.