The Iranian leadership started the celebrations of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, by throwing the usual anti-American rhetoric. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif took the opportunity to emphasize that his country would walk away from the 2015 nuclear deal if the United States fails to comply with its commitments under the agreement formally known as Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The new US administration clearly got Tehran thinking about Iran’s main predicament – its strategic loneliness. Therefore, the time seems to be ripe to turn to one possible partner – the European Union.
In general, Iran has, by and large, neglected its ties with the old continent. Due to decade-long negotiation efforts about the nuclear deal, Brussels has not been very relevant for Tehran, which mostly preferred bilateral relations with individual EU member states. Engaging with the EU, however, presumes understanding of the nature of this multi-layer actor and its international outlook including its strong interest in a transatlantic partnership. From Tehran’s perspective, there are three sets of European players worth engaging – the member states, the European External Action Service (EEAS), and the European Commission and Parliament.
The member states are important for Iran from a trade perspective – they promote a re-establishment of economic ties with the country. Last year, following the nuclear deal’s entry into force, Iran-EU trade almost doubled compared to 2015. The current trade volume of €13.7 billion, however, still stands at only half of its 2011 value, while Iranian crude exports have more than tripled, albeit from a very low base. Member states are also important for Iran because of the gas companies they host – French Total, Anglo-Dutch Shell, German Siemens or Austrian OMV.
When it comes to the EEAS, its Secretary-General, Helga Schmid, was the focal point of the multilateral talks and is a trusted interlocutor for the Iranians. The EEAS also includes the dedicated Iran Task Force that chairs meetings of the Joint Commission established under the JCPOA and which oversees the implementation of the deal. The European Commission and the European Parliament have so far been largely perceived as two ‘secondary actors’ by European foreign policy standards but they are getting important for the development of the bloc’s comprehensive policy towards Iran.
In order for the EU and Iran to develop a more comprehensive relationship and broader external relations, both institutions must be involved. It is the EU Commission that holds the key to EU’s decision-making in all walks of life. When Federica Mogherini visited Tehran in April 2016, she explored, together with Iranian policymakers, areas of potential engagement including “economic relations, energy, environment, migration, drugs, humanitarian aid, transport, civil protection, science and civil nuclear cooperation, as well as culture”. However, developing a stronger partnership with the EU will not happen in a vacuum – it can only come to fruition within the EU-Iran-US triangle because one side (EU-Iran) cannot prosper if the other (US-Iran) deteriorates. Thus, the EU’s incredibly challenging task is to guard and preserve the nuclear deal in a time of great uncertainty.
‘Tehran Starts to Grasp the EU’s Value in the Face of Trump’ – Op-Ed by Cornelius Adebahr – Carnegie Europe.
(The Op-ed can be downloaded here)