By: Seyed Hossein Mousavian. The decision by British voters to leave the European Union coincides with improving relations between Europe and Iran. Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran’s relationship with Europe’s major powers has been characterized by periods of economic cooperation followed by near-complete disengagement.
The nuclear deal struck between Iran and world powers in July 2015 – which the EU played a major role in negotiating – removed the economic sanctions that since 2006 have stood in the way of deeper ties. A new chapter in Iranian–European relations has already begun. But the impending exit of the United Kingdom from the EU further paves the way for a new paradigm in Europe’s relationship with Iran: strategic EU–Iran engagement that is separate from, but parallel to, high-level UK–Iran talks.
Separating the UK
London and Tehran have not had sustainably good relations since before the revolution. Over the course of the past century, Iranians of all walks of life have come to view Britain differently, and with far more suspicion, than they view other European states. At the root of this mistrust is Britain’s colonial era history in Iran. Nearly every Iranian bitterly recalls incidents such as the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, which split Iran into Russian and British spheres of influence; the engineering by the British of Reza Khan’s (later Reza Shah Pahlavi) ascension to the throne in 1925; Britain’s opposition to the nationalization of Iranian oil; and its infamous 1953 plot with the CIA to oust prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh. This history has been so seared into the consciousness of Iranians that many believe Britain is to this day still trying to manipulate events inside Iran to its benefit.
These feelings have been reinforced since the revolution by Britain’s support for forceful US policies against Iran, and its continuing refusal to acknowledge its historical offences. This was most evident during the early years of the nuclear crisis, when Iran negotiated with the E3 powers (Germany, France and the United Kingdom) over its nuclear program. During this period, I served as the spokesman for Iran’s negotiating team.
In spring 2005, I privately presented a similar proposal to my counterparts in Germany, France and the United Kingdom. While it was met with support in Berlin, my meeting with ultimately turn down the offer in my talks with him, French nuclear negotiator Stanislas Lefebvre de Laboulaye led me to conclude that France would accept the proposal only if the UK did. However, London’s nuclear negotiator, John Sawers, would telling me that Washington would not tolerate even one centrifuge spinning in Iran. This episode served as a striking example of America’s hold, through Britain, on the foreign-policy decision-making of other EU states. Jack Straw, then UK foreign minister, would later say: ‘Had it not been for major problems within the US administration under President Bush, we could have actually settled the whole Iran nuclear dossier back in 2005.’
The period of negotiations between Iran and the E3 from 2003–05 was nevertheless significant, as it marked an effort by the EU to play a strategic role in the Middle East. The subsequent eight years, however, would see Iran’s relations with the EU, and the UK in particular, hit rock bottom. The format of the negotiations changed in 2006 to include other major world powers, adding the United States along with China and Russia to what became the E3+3, also known as the P5+1. As negotiations stalled during the second term of George W. Bush and President Barack Obama’s first term, the US and its allies imposed an increasingly draconian sanctions regime while Iran increased the size and capacity of its nuclear program.
In late 2011, the crisis reached its peak. Iran’s ‘breakout time’ – the amount of time it needed to amass the quantity of fissile material needed for a single weapon if it made the decision to do so – reached just a few months, according to some estimates. In November 2011, the United States and its allies also imposed what would be their hardest-hitting sanctions on Iran, effectively cutting the country out of most international trade and banking.
Immediately following this move, Iran’s parliament passed a bill to expel the British ambassador to Tehran and reduce diplomatic contact. This was not a spontaneous decision, but rather the result of years of increasingly louder calls in Iran to downgrade relations with Britain. The origin of the feud went back to the protests that rocked Iran following Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election in 2009, during which Iranian authorities arrested nine local British embassy staff, including chief political analyst Hossein Rassam, for allegedly playing a ‘significant role’ in the post-election protests of that year. At the time, then-foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki warned that Iran would downgrade ties, and intelligence minister Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Eje’i even alleged that some of the violent protesters had been caught with British passports. Iranian authorities subsequently tried Rassam for espionage. The British government vigorously denied the charges.
A day after the bill was passed in 2011, a group of angry young protesters surrounded the British embassy in Tehran, chanting slogans and pushing up to the embassy walls. They eventually overcame police guards and stormed the embassy, setting fire to the first floor and causing extensive damage to the rest of the compound. The action spurred outrage across the world. The foreign ministry called it ‘unacceptable’. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei later said of the protesters, ‘The feelings of the youth were correct, but their behavior was not correct.’ The British government argued, however, that the protests could not have taken place without a degree of institutional consent.
In November 2011, the United States and its allies also imposed what would be their hardest-hitting sanctions on Iran, effectively cutting the country out of most international trade and banking.
The 2011 attack on the British embassy exemplified the vehement animosity against Britain that continues to exist in segments of Iranian society. It also contributed to escalating EU–Iran tensions and tipped the EU into firmly supporting additional US sanctions against Iran. As a result, the EU’s total trade with Iran dropped to €6 billion by 2013, down from a high of roughly €27bn in 2011.
With the election of President Hassan Rouhani in June 2013, and a decision by second-term President Obama to pivot from a position of no enrichment in Iran to no nuclear weapons, the path to reconciliation between Iran and the UK, and by extension the EU, was cleared. The British embassy in Tehran reopened one month after the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was reached, nearly four years after it was attacked. For many in Iran, it had become clear that the EU’s position was heavily influenced by the UK and that Iran could not have a meaningful economic relationship with the EU if it continued to have poor relations with Britain.
One implication of an EU without the United Kingdom is that British, and by extension American, influence on EU–Iran relations will be diminished. This was one reason why Hamid Aboutalebi, Rouhani’s deputy chief of staff for political affairs, tweeted after the vote that ‘Brexit is a “historic opportunity” for Iran’. Continental Europe has always been friendlier towards Iran and far more willing to do business with it. This has been evident since the JCPOA was reached, with EU–Iran trade picking up dramatically (serious banking issues notwithstanding) and political delegations travelling back and forth.
Iranian leaders should bear in mind, however, that despite Britain’s exit from the EU, Iran’s relations with the UK will still affect the kind of relationship Iran can have with the West. If tensions between Iran and the US and UK were to increase to the levels seen during the nuclear crisis, EU–Iran relations would almost certainly deteriorate again as well. As such, in light of Brexit, there is a vital need for direct high-level talks between London and Tehran aimed at defining a new relationship. These talks should focus on eliminating mistrust, and give Britain the opportunity to address Iranian grievances and acknowledge past wrongdoings. Given the unique history between Iran and the UK, the talks need to be held within their own framework and separately from efforts aimed at EU–Iran engagement. And for the UK–Iran relationship to be reconstructed, it is also imperative that regional policies be discussed, as many Iranian officials firmly believe that London has always pursued a strategy of dividing Iran from its Arab neighbors.
Britain today has strong ties with many of Iran’s Arab neighbors, particularly the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. By engaging Iran at a deeper level, it stands to play an instrumental role in fostering detente between Iran and the GCC states and facilitating the creation of a regional cooperation system. This would have a stabilizing effect in the region and benefit Britain by diminishing the threat of terrorism, stemming refugee flows and securing the Persian Gulf as an economically prosperous area where investments can be made and safe passage for energy resources is guaranteed.
A new relationship with Europe
Iran and the rest of the EU have a different history, and the opportunity exists for deeper, strategic engagement between them. Since 1979, tensions between EU member states and Iran have centered on four major issues: terrorism, human rights, weapons of mass destruction and the Israeli– Palestinian conflict. When I became Iran’s ambassador to Germany in 1990, I tried to establish a joint working group to address these differences.
Following the conclusion of the JCPOA, Europe has the opportunity to shift towards a more constructive approach towards Iran.
These efforts led to a ‘critical dialogue’ between Iran and the EU from 1992–97 followed by a ‘comprehensive dialogue’. While then-German chancellor Helmut Kohl was receptive to these initiatives, he was met with opposition from the United States. Nevertheless, the EU and Iran developed amicable ties over time, and Europe even became Iran’s largest trading partner, until the nuclear crisis emerged.
While EU–Iran relations suffered greatly during the nuclear-crisis era, especially from 2011 to 2013, the EU played an instrumental role in the diplomacy that eventually led to the JCPOA. EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton and her successor, Federica Mogherini, spearheaded the negotiations between the E3+3 and Iran, and the EU’s High Representative now holds the decisive role of Coordinator of the Joint Commission that will oversee the JCPOA’s implementation.
Following the conclusion of the JCPOA, Europe has the opportunity to shift towards a more constructive approach towards Iran. The increasingly shared interests and threats between the two sides have created room not just for tactical cooperation and increased trade, but for broader strategic dialogue on a host of decisive issues.
Western Asia today is a significantly different place than it was a decade or even five years ago. Large swathes of Iraq and Syria have become battlefields or been occupied by violent terrorist groups, the most notorious of which is the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL). Other Arab states, such as Libya, Egypt and Bahrain, are either in complete disarray or on shaky foundations. Refugees in their millions are entering Europe, testing the continent’s social cohesion and public services in unprecedented ways. A two-state solution to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict is also a more distant prospect than ever. Europe simply cannot turn its back on the turmoil in the Middle East, and urgently needs to help foster a stabilizing regional order for its own well-being.
In the face of all this disorder, Iran is a strong state with functioning institutions and significant influence throughout the region. It has a pluralistic political system, by regional standards, and regularly holds elections. It is at the forefront of the fight against ISIS and other terrorist groups, and is engaged in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan. Simply stated, Iran stands to be an effective partner in helping the EU alleviate the trifecta of serious challenges it faces today: terrorism, migration and a stumbling economy. The differences that once existed between Iran and the EU are either no longer pertinent or can be mitigated through deeper engagement.
On the issue of terrorism, Iran is among the few countries in the Middle East fighting terrorist groups that have been responsible for the deaths of many Americans and Europeans, including ISIS, al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra (now Jabhat Fatah al-Sham). By contrast, US Vice President Joe Biden has accused US regional allies of supporting extremists in Syria in their eagerness to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton also stated at the Brookings Institution last year: ‘Much of the extremism in the world today is the direct result of policies and funding undertaken by the Saudi government and individuals. We would be foolish not to recognize that.’
The nuclear deal also resolved, at least for the moment, the long-standing issue of Iranian nuclear proliferation. Through diplomacy, the EU, Iran and other world powers not only managed to reach the most comprehensive agreement on nuclear non-proliferation in history, but also established a model that can be used to address proliferation concerns in other countries, particularly in the Middle East. The initiative of a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (MENWFZ) was first proposed by Iran and Egypt in 1974. If the principles of the JCPOA are implemented regionally, it would finally be realized.
On the issue of human rights, differences will undeniably continue to exist. However, there is also room for dialogue on human rights that focuses on identifying ways to minimize differences and cooperate on common interests. One possible area for cooperation is the refugee crisis, which has had unique consequences for both the EU and Iran. Europe has found itself taking in more than one million refugees and migrants in 2015 alone, posing unprecedented security, political, demographic and economic challenges. Iran, on the other hand, is surrounded by several of the failed states from which many of the refugees are fleeing, greatly threatening its national security. Iran and the EU both stand to benefit from changing this status quo, and could work together to foster stable orders in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan in order to allow refugees to return.
On other human-rights issues, it is important for the EU to hold Iran to the same standards it does other regional countries, of which Iran is often far ahead on human rights. For example, whereas Iranian women are active in nearly all walks of professional life, vote and seek elected office, women in Saudi Arabia are not even allowed to drive.
An agenda for cooperation
Strategic EU–Iran engagement would entail deep and long-lasting cooperation in economics, security and regional stability. Iran is strategically located at the crossroads of the Middle East, Central Asia and Europe, and in between the energy-rich Caspian Sea and Persian Gulf. Its geographic position also makes it an ideal alternative to conventional shipping routes to Asia, Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). In short, Iran is a significant regional player that the EU can no longer afford to ignore.
Iran is resource-rich, with the fourth-largest oil reserves and the largest natural-gas reserves in the world. It could be an integral part of Europe’s efforts at energy diversification. In order to foster broader energy cooperation, a working committee of European and Iranian energy executives could be set up to explore opportunities for EU companies to become commercial partners in investing in and developing Iran’s energy sector.
Iran is among the few countries in the Middle East fighting terrorist groups that have been responsible for the deaths of many Americans and Europeans, including ISIS, al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra (now Jabhat Fatah al-Sham).
On the security front, there is a vital need for the EU and Iran to cooperate in the fight against terrorism. Since ISIS and other terrorist groups established a foothold in Syria, there has been a dramatic rise in both the number and scope of terrorist attacks around the world. Whether in ISIS-inspired attacks like the Orlando shooting that left 49 dead, or the ISIS-directed attack at Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport, which killed 44, it is clear that the group’s reach is not limited to any specific territory. Terrorism from ISIS and likeminded groups is now the number-one security threat not just to the Middle East, but also to Europe. Iran is leading the fight on the ground against terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq. While cooperation in Syria is highly unlikely until a settlement is reached between the Syrian government and members of the opposition, the EU can work more closely with Iran in Iraq to combat ISIS and strengthen the Iraqi government. Formal intelligence sharing is one possible and immediate step the EU and Iran could pursue.
Strategic engagement between the EU and Iran also promises to be a great boost to regional security. Iran and the E3+3 could agree to a model for crisis management based on the template of the nuclear negotiations, which succeeded in large part because the end state was agreed to at the beginning of the negotiating process. The conflicts raging in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain all share a common root cause: the social and political marginalization of a major group within society. In Syria, this group was the majority Sunni Arab population; in Bahrain, the majority Shia population; and in Yemen, the Zaydi Muslims who constitute a large minority. EU–Iran cooperation on solving the discord in these countries should center on bringing about a solution that emphasizes majority rule, minority rights, power sharing and free elections.
EU leaders should be aware of the fact that the free flow of hydrocarbons out of the Persian Gulf is dependent on regional stability. While the EU imports most of its oil and gas from Russia, Central Asia and North Africa, stability in the Persian Gulf would ensure a lower price for energy and provide the EU with a viable alternative energy source, thereby lowering the leverage of its current suppliers. To ensure the continued secure flow of energy resources out of the region and boost regional stability at the same time, the EU could work with Iran and the GCC countries to develop plans for regional energy interconnectivity. Iran’s natural-gas endowment, in particular, could serve as a source of energy for GCC countries whose own energy exports are being cut by their growing domestic energy demands. This would give countries on all sides of the Gulf a real stake in each other’s well-being, promoting regional cooperation.
The EU can also help bring order to the region by supporting the establishment of a system that allows Iran and the GCC to have substantive dialogue on security issues. Establishing a regional security structure was once the initiative of former German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who pushed for a system of cooperation that would include Iran and the GCC states. Such a system would, importantly, allow Saudi Arabia and Iran to mend their differences, take into account each other’s interests and cooperate to stabilize the region. It would help to end the proxy wars that have for so long tormented the region, and usher in a durable peace.
Another fruitful area for dialogue and increased cooperation between the EU and Iran is the environment, and averting man-made disasters more broadly. Iran is wrestling with severe environmental challenges, ranging from drought to heavy pollution. Its quest for nuclear energy has also seen it construct a nuclear power plant in the coastal city of Bushehr, which sits on seismic fault lines. European businesses and specialists can help in both of these cases: by developing water-efficiency programs, and sharing methods for enhancing nuclear safety.
The most immediate potential obstacle to strategic Iran–EU cooperation would be a failure to live up to JCPOA commitments. US sanctions legislation still in place has inhibited EU financial institutions from facilitating trade with Iran, preventing Iran from receiving the sanctions relief it expected under the nuclear deal. If this impasse can be overcome, the EU will find a strong partner in Iran. If not, Iran will turn further towards non-Western countries and the EU will be left with its hands tied in the Middle East.
The Middle East is on the verge of total collapse, and there is no surefire way to bring it back from the brink. There is no doubt, however, that strategic EU–Iran engagement would be a step towards order and away from further chaos. For decades, the Middle East has been a battleground for outside powers vying for control. In the past, the turmoil created in the region largely stayed there. Today, this is no longer the case. This new world calls for abandoning counterproductive policies of exclusion, and pursuing new partnerships that offer a real opportunity to make the region, and the world, a safer and more prosperous place.
Seyed Hossein Mousavian is Iranian associate research scholar at Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University, who has also served as a diplomat and official since the Revolution.
This article was first published in Survival Journal of Global Politics and Strategy.