When it comes to Iran, the European approach has always been characterized by a degree of pragmatism. Contrary to the US policy of isolation and containment, the European Union has been advocating for engagement since the beginning of Iran’s reconstruction era in 1989. Even with ups and downs, the EU has tried to maintain dialogue, either in the form of “critical dialogue” or “comprehensive dialogue”. Despite an abrupt and temporary halt due to the verdict of the Mykonos trial in 1997, the EU and Iran have maintained a constructive discussion on topics such as human rights, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and drug trafficking, besides important economic cooperation. But it was on the nuclear dossier that the EU fully displayed its role as a platform for diplomacy and for finding common ground on contentious topics. In particular, it was the E3 (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) that “secured support from their fellow EU partners, overcame resistance from the United States (US) to engage Iran and created common ground with Russia and China”.
As the July 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was deemed a major foreign policy success for the EU, the subsequent US withdrawal from the deal in May 2018 was perceived as a major blow to the EU’s interests and image. It is neither a secret nor an exaggeration that the period when Donald Trump was in the White House was marked by significant turbulences in transatlantic relations, with Iran being one of the main points of disagreement. That period also revealed the fragility of the EU’s foreign policy ambitions: exactly as the JCPOA was made possible by transatlantic cooperation coupled with that of China and Russia, its survival was put at serious risk by the transatlantic divorce. Although the EU engaged in a series of actions aimed at preserving the deal – from firm declarations of support to the revival of the Blocking Statute – none of these was enough to actually shield itself from the threat of US sanctions. Indeed, despite the EU making a remarkable effort at keeping the JCPOA alive in the 2018-2020 period, it was the 2020 election of Joe Biden and the return of US diplomacy in Vienna in 2021 that prevented the nuclear crisis from spiraling out of control.
Now that “America is back”, which lessons can be drawn?
First, that despite great commitment and aspirations at playing a global role, the EU’s ability to actually shape events remains limited. For the time being, it should thus commit to increasing its ability at managing them by seriously investing in crisis management. Put in another way, it ought to continue investing in making itself resilient to external shocks. When it comes to the Iran deal, this means, above all, shielding itself from the threat of US sanctions by strengthening European economic sovereignty with measures set to bolster the international role of the Euro and the creation of a European export bank.
Second, that America may be back, but this does not mean that it will be so for an indefinite future. A new Trump – or even the same one – could be elected in 2024, or more simply new disagreements could arise between the two shores of the Atlantic. The push towards greater strategic autonomy sparked by the Trump years, thus, should not be abandoned. While “strategic autonomy” has become sort of a buzzword still vaguely defined, it should be interpretedas a means to manage asymmetric interdependence in today’s global system.
Third, that despite the difficulties and the setbacks, the E3 have proved their value as a major hub for coordinating and even driving the EU’s foreign policy in Iran. With a common foreign policy still a mirage, working groups of countries are still the best option. But even in this case, a lesson can be drawn. The E3 belongs to a very different time in history, and new formats should be found, more respectful of present-day realities. With the UK no longer part of the EU, Germany preparing for an uncertain post-Merkel epoch, and France heading towards presidential elections next year which could result in a far-right victory, the time could be ripe for opening the membership to other countries particularly invested in the Middle East, namely Italy and Spain, so as to preserve the group’s ability to maintain engagement and steer EU diplomacy towards Iran. The objective could be the creation of an E5 working with Iran on issues beyond the nuclear file, from regional security to environmental challenges. Countries such as Italy and Spain — which do not have a (direct or indirect) colonial history in Iran, and are perceived by Tehran as not overly leaning towards the Gulf — could add significant value to the E3 and strengthen its mediation role.
While the negotiations for the revival of the JCPOA are underway in Vienna and a new President is about to be elected in Tehran, the EU should rise to the challenge by rethinking and improving its engagement with Iran through measures to strengthen its economic sovereignty and by thinking about new formulas for engagement.