The recent moves by three European powers, namely the UK, Germany, and France, have cast doubt on the existing dynamics between Iran and Europe, or, more broadly, Iran and the West. This emerging narrative predominantly anchors itself into the historical memory of distrust that perpetually prevails between Iran and the West.
The three European countries have declared that they will not comply with their commitments under the JCPOA regarding the lifting of sanctions against Iran’s missile program as of October 18, 2023. However, they have adopted positions on Iran by issuing statements against Iran’s nuclear program on the sidelines of the IAEA Board of Governors meeting, taking stances on Iran’s domestic issues, and imposing new sanctions against the country, eliciting sharp reactions from Tehran.
In this context, the age-old debate has resurfaced in Iran’s analytical and strategic circles: Should Tehran treat Europe and the United States as equivalent entities, or should it adopt separate policies towards each Western party? In relation to the differentiation of the three European countries from other European states and the European Union, the question also arises as to whether London, Paris and Berlin’s actions represent a unified European approach, or is pursuing a bilateral policy with European countries outside the EU a sound investment?
The Bedrock of Distrust
Historically, Iran’s ties with each of these European countries have witnessed oscillating ties. Relations with Berlin and Paris have largely been economic and less mired in political turbulence. However, ties with Britain have been fundamentally tainted by skepticism, distrust, and political unrest, rooted in its historical background. The popular Iranian political proverb, ‘It is an English job,’ perfectly encapsulates this sentiment.
Yet, due to certain identity factors and Europe’s staunch stance in siding with the United States, along with their economic, political, and cultural harmony on global matters, Iran’s perception of the European nations closely mirrors that of the broader ‘Western world.’ These nations continue to wield modern methods and instruments of dominance and control over other states, including Iran.
Nonetheless, assessment of Iran’s foreign policies over recent decades, under the presidencies of Hassan Rouhani and Ebrahim Raisi, suggest a greater inclination from Tehran to differentiate between Europe and the United States, steering toward pragmatic interactions with European powers. This pragmatic approach has underscored the need for extending economic ties and upholding the principle of non-interference in internal matters. However, Europe’s handling of the nuclear deal and their partial views concerning Iran on human rights issues have been a letdown for Tehran.
In the context of foreign policies of these three European countries toward Iran, aside from the sanctions, a central point of contention for Tehran is the European coalescence with the United States in intensifying pressure onto Iran. In a modern instance, from Iran’s viewpoint, more than the practical results of not lifting sanctions on Iran’s missile program, the political and perceptual implications are crucial. The symbolic significance of lifting the European sanctions against Iran’s missile program clearly outweighs its substantive value. Iran has managed to indigenize weapon production under sanctions and is currently in the stage of arms export. Nonetheless, the political role of the three European powers in securitizing Iran-related matters and establishing an atmosphere of mistrust concerning diplomacy and agreements, bear more weight.
From Iran’s standpoint, Europeans are attempting to coax Tehran into reevaluating its strategic alliances with China and Russia, despite their policy of pressurizing Iran. However, there is no guarantee that abstaining from strategic collaboration with China and Russia will bring a shift in the cooperative balance of Western policies with Iran.
Indeed, Iranians have grown to perceive Europeans as aiding the United States in securitizing Iran’s case, consequently fanning the flames for Tehran to adopt more deterrent and defensive measures. This approach overshadows Iran’s multilateral policy and places constraints on its political maneuverability.
Nonetheless, the sustained critical dialogue between Iran and Europe signifies that in spite of Tehran recognizing its own right to initiate apt and deterrent measures in the face of European hostilities, it still places a considerable premium on diplomacy. Iran comprehends that European threats associated with the activation of the snapback mechanism currently lack substantial realism. Nonetheless, it is not difficult to understand the immense complexities and challenges that the mechanism’s activation and the subsequent referral to the United Nations Security Council would entail. These actions would undeniably exert a hefty toll on Europeans while offering minuscule return.
The Craft of Trust Building
Iranians regard Europeans as international powers capable of contributing to a global balance accompanied by a multilateral approach in an increasingly multipolar world. Yet, Europeans themselves seem reluctant to harness this potential, often preferring to safeguard the American order, an entity widely considered by pundits to be fatally fractured.
Following the Cold War, Europeans — primarily Germany — were deemed the primary contenders against the United States, positioned to emerge as a rival power. However, the Europeans opted to aid Washington in asserting unilateral dominance over the world order rather than rivaling the United States.
Throughout the past few decades, these European countries have consistently performed the role of mere proxies in the grand schema of US geopolitical goals. This recognition has significantly flavored Iran’s strategic perspective toward Europeans. Whenever Iran mulls over the possibility of differentiating its relationship with Europe from that of the US, the three European countries inject a sense of doubt, implying that such differentiation is ill-advised. They postulate that the relationship with Europe is inseparable from the US thus suggesting that any earnest endeavors to cultivate these ties are not only unproductive but also burdensome.
Despite this belief, an independent development of Iran’s relations with Europe could have reaped numerous benefits including mutual political and economic considerations, and even paved the way to resolve issues surrounding the Iranian nuclear deal. Moreover, it could have worked to align Iran’s and Europe’s security preoccupations closely. In the domain of security, Iran and Europe could have forged collaborations in areas ranging from regional to energy security. Such joint endeavors could have elevated Europe’s posture in Middle Eastern geopolitics, consequently amplifying its international stature.
European nations have consistently demonstrated an intense interest in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf region, stemming from political influence and the quest for economic market dominance. However, Europe’s alliance with the US has cost them substantial opportunities in these regions. At present, Europeans wield little weight in the geopolitical equations of one of the world’s most strategically significant regions— the Middle East. Similarly, in Central Asia and the Caucasus, Europeans are scarcely reckoned as influential players.
A partnership with Iran, a regional powerhouse boasting substantial economic and geopolitical prowess, proximate to the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf, could have delivered remarkable benefits to most European nations. Bolstering ties with Iran could have catered to a significant proportion of Europe’s necessities for instating order and security in the Middle East and Persian Gulf region. Conversely, a confrontational policy toward Iran, with the potential for detrimental impacts on regional peace and security, would likely jeopardize European interests.
One might argue that over recent decades, these three European countries have played a consequential role in obstructing the construction of productive and security-oriented relationships between the European Union, Iran, and other regional countries. Rather than fostering such beneficial relationships, they have championed counterproductive policies that have hindered development.
With the unfolding recent events, the chasm of distrust between Iran and the tripartite European countries seems to have stretched to an unprecedented degree. An escalation of the mutual behavioral logic between Iranians and Europeans can potentially amplify the threat perception held by both sides. However, the past experience asserts that ultimately, the manifold costs incurred by hostility only pave the way back to the negotiation table. Such wisdom nurtured within Tehran’s ethos has led to a greater willingness to engage in negotiations and diplomacy.
Yet, one might pose the question: Can a fresh perspective on the Iran-Europe relationship birth itself in the current climate? As core shifts ensue within international politics, are Europeans – despite underscoring their specific interests – adequately equipped to assume a constructive role in attenuating tensions and laying the groundwork for regional and international peace and stability? The trio of European nations appear to be swiftly eroding the bedrock of trust in their relationship with Iran, all the while portraying themselves as diplomacy’s standard-bearers. So, what would be the necessary mechanisms and steps for trust building?
It appears evident that multiple factors and steps might play a part in fostering trust within the diplomatic process. Willpower, risk-taking, and commitment are key constituents of the process of trust-building. The stages encapsulating the crafting of trust could potentially include the following:
- Determining a starting point to end hostile positions and initiate trust-building, which, of course, comes with risks but is inevitable.
- Establishing a mechanism to fulfill mutual expectations constitutes a critical phase of any agreement. When a nation dares to risk its interests, as Iran did with the 2015 nuclear pact, it holds an expectation of reciprocity. What discouraged Iran from continuing its commitments to the JCPOA was not just the US withdrawal from the agreement but also the European reluctance to assist Iran in reaping the benefits of the deal.
- The subsequent phase includes the expansion of trust spaces. This transpiration happens when all or some expectations of the initial agreement are met, promoting the parties’ inclination to divulge additional interests. It is a step yet to be traversed, following the US departure from the JCPOA and the agreement’s inability to secure Iran’s interests.
Despite the current circumstances, Iranian officials at the highest echelons continuously underscore their readiness for diplomacy and trust-building. Reflecting on Iran’s experience with the rapprochement with Saudi Arabia and its effects on regional peace and security, Iran has consistently sought to underline this desired policy in its dialogues with European nations. It has prioritized mutual economic-political benefits and the resolution of challenging issues.
Yet, Europeans persist in upholding their ineffective policies toward Iran. Nevertheless, the collective positions of Iran demonstrate that Tehran is trying to differentiate between the behaviors of Western countries and invest in developing bilateral relations with them.
Iran’s position concerning engagement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) suggests that Iran does not equate interaction with the agency to forging ties with the three European countries. Rather, Iran maintains its resolve to engage maximally with the IAEA within the scaffoldings of a multilateral, constructive policy, aligning with its security interests.