COVID-19’s impact on Iran’s already pressured economy is no secret. The pandemic is reducing the government’s income and increasing its expenses. Iran’s fragile economy will endure even more pressure in the coming months, yet the aggressive dialogue between Tehran and Washington is business as usual. Some argue the Iranian regime may not survive the coronavirus crisis. Others are warning that the regime is taking the people of Iran hostage by means of the pandemic. The embargo, put in place by the United States, is only exacerbating the Iranian people’s precarious living conditions. Which are the possible scenarios for US-Iran relations? Escalation, de-escalation or the status quo? This essay aims to present three possible scenarios that could describe the future of the US-Iran relationship and its implication for the European Union. A return to the past – a hypothesis in which the aggressive dialogue would continue without a constructive finality; Iran’s emergence as a regional hegemon; or a Western burst of action – where the European signatories of the JCPOA could decide whether to continue to support the nuclear deal or change the discourse, supporting Washington in its bid to negotiate a new deal.
The impact of the COVID-19
Since announcing its first COVID-19 fatalities, on 19 February 2020, in the holy city of Qom, the Islamic Republic of Iran has been the Middle Eastern country most badly affected by the pandemic, reporting infection and fatality rates among the highest in the world. As this essay is being written, in October 2020, there have been 588,648 coronavirus cases, and the death toll currently stands at 33,714. At the end of the month the numbers reached new heights, with an average of 300 daily deaths. The measures taken have been halting and ineffective, and the response to the pandemic has been a mixture of responsible warnings from public health officials, inconsistent government’ policies and conspiracy theories spread by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Two days after Iran’s February parliamentary elections – which despite the virus did take place, albeit amid historically low turnout – Imam Khamenei referred to what he called the large-scale propaganda from foreign media calling on the ’people not to participate in the elections, pointing out, “This negative propaganda began a few months ago and increased as the elections approached. In the last two days, the pretext of an illness and virus was used, and their media did not miss the slightest opportunity to discourage people from voting”.
Restrictions and measures aimed at limiting the virus’ spread were implemented in phases: on 23 February, the government ordered universities to close in some provinces and cancelled all cultural events; on 28 February, it called off Friday prayers and gatherings, followed by the closure of all academic institutions; on 5 March, it shuttered all sports venues, followed by religious shrines on 13 March, and a few days later travel between cities was banned.Moreover, by 17 March , Iran released 85,000 prisoners to prevent outbreaks of the virus in detention centres. Meanwhile, the Iranian government’s judgment continued to be marked by a combination of cynicism and religious ideology. Moreover, beyond the momentum of COVID-19, the theocratic government in Tehran is facing a set of challenges whose simultaneous pressure could, in the foreseeable future, cause a new wave of social movements, which would put Iran in the unprecedented situation of managing the fourth consecutive year marked by revolts of society. Under the weight of severe economic sanctions, unemployment and inflation have been rising while GDP is shrinking by 6% per annum. However, the Iranian regime has proved remarkably stable, at least for the time being, as it continues to strengthen its regional influence and even to expand its nuclear programme.
At first, the spread of COVID-19 seemed to provide an opportunity for Washington and Tehran to move away, at least temporarily, from aggressive dialogue and politics. The United States has provided nearly $274 million in aid to Iran, a sum which the Trump administration set aside for emergency international humanitarian funding. Also, Iran has released the US Army veteran and cancer patient Michael White from prison, who was handed over to Swiss diplomats (over time Switzerland has provided a channel of communication between these longtime foes). Furthermore, some US diplomats have demanded the release of at least four other Americans allegedly detained by Tehran, but Iranian decision-makers rejected Washington’s medical aid and did not respond to its request regarding the alleged American prisoners. The Trump administration responded by increasingsanctions on Iran; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused the Iranian leadership “trying to avoid responsibility for their grossly incompetent and deadly governance”, alleging that “the Wuhan virus is a killer and the Iranian regime is an accomplice”. However, not only did the economic sanctions fail to bring about the desired outcome – which comes as no surprise – in fact, they have led to the strengthening of the ultra-conservative political faction. It is difficult to draw a clear line between Iranian political leaders, but what is certain is that the current president Hassan Rouhani, along with politicians associated with the foreign minister Javad Zarif, overcame nationalist pride and led Iran to the negotiating table with the West. Even though the mass demonstrations which began during the winter of 2017 and peaked in December 2019 showed that Iranian society is deeply dissatisfied with its government, public opinion of the American administration is even more hostile. In January 2020, hundreds of thousands of Iranians mourned the death of General Qassem Soleimani – killed by an American drone strike – in one of the largest mass demonstrations the country has ever seen. Not everyone venerated Soleimani, who supported a campaign to expand Iranian influence through proxy wars in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen; but his assassination was a blow to national pride.
Iranian hardliners, the main beneficiaries of the current US administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ strategy, may see this as an unprecedented opportunity to do what the Iranian elite has rejected in the past – leave the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Non-Proliferation Treaty Nuclear (NPT), and then resume the nuclear programme. For the European Union this scenario means that its worst prediction –several European leaders have warned the Trump administration that withdrawing from the JCPOA would trigger a chain of escalation with Iran – are becoming reality. The nuclear deal remains at the heart of EU policy toward Iran; however, if Tehran takes further drastic steps in violation of the agreement terms, this scenario could mark the total collapse of the agreement. The EU and its former member, the United Kingdom, have so far resisted joining Washington’s calls for ‘maximum pressure’, and will need to prepare for a worse security dynamic across the Middle East if Tehran decides to escalate. However, given the latest events in France and the series of statement on the terrorist attacks made by the French President, Emmanuel Macron, Tehran – even though President Macron has not named the Islamic Republic as a perpetrator of extreme religious manifestation – has added its voice to the choir of Macron’s critics (UK, Kuwait, Qatar, Palestine, Egypt, Algeria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey). Such a gesture has the potential to distance France from the group of states that advocate the preservation of the nuclear agreement, and may create the preconditions for Paris to align itself with the US stance in future.
The American ‘maximum pressure’ approach encountered maximum resistance from Tehran, which has led to an escalation of repressive or aggressive actions on both sides.
The pandemic is having its geopolitical impact against the backdrop of the wider US-Iran animosity that has grown steadily since president Donald Trump decided to unilaterally withdraw the US from the JCPOA on 8 May 2018. The American ‘maximum pressure’ approach encountered maximum resistance from Tehran, which has led to an escalation of repressive or aggressive actions on both sides. General Soleimani’s killing was followed by a rocket attack in Iraq, claimed by an Iran-backed paramilitary group, against Camp Taji on March 2020, when three members of the US-led counter-ISIS coalition were killed and twelve were injured; another barrage upon the same facility three days later injured three US troops. While escalatory dynamics have so far been kept in check, the equilibrium is fragile and often broken by continuous escalations and counter-escalations from both Washington and Tehran – and their proxies. Normally, whenever adversaries are confronted with common transnational threats, their propensity to adopt flexible and cooperative behaviours to protect themselves increases. Even staunch adversaries like the US and Iran have had a history of cooperation against common threats in the post-1979 period. Historical cases include the early years of the war in Afghanistan (1), the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and the recent fight against ISIS. On these occasions, both sides have temporarily de-escalated tensions, or have at least refrained from embarking on major confrontations. In addition, the emergence of common threats sets new limits to the continuation of regular policies. For example, during the Iraqi war, the US military’s operational need to safely escape Iraqi air defence by traversing into western Iranian airspace forced politicians in Washington to tone down their anti-Iranian rhetoric.
Nevertheless, not much has changed in the US-Iran conflict since the pandemic’s outbreak. Despite expert advices and international calls, the US administration has refused to temporarily ease the sanctions regime and facilitate Iran’s purchase of much-needed medical equipment on the international market. At the same time, Iran has not shown any intention to revisit its offensive strategy against the US forces in Iraq. Both the US and Iran appear to be continuing their collision course. If anything, both parties seem to view Covid-19 as an opportunity to force the other party to change policy or surrender. They seem to have a worrying determination to use the pandemic to reinforce old strategies and narratives.
One might ask why so much is written about Iran-US relations, when in fact the central, and to a lesser extent the eastern European countries, are the ones struggling to save the nuclear deal? And how, exactly, can such heated rhetoric between Washington and Tehran affect Europe or its transatlantic relationship? The current trajectory not only endangers Europe’s non-proliferation goals, but it also heightens the risk of a nuclear arms race and a further military escalation in Europe’s backyard. Direct or indirect confrontation between American- and Iranian-backed forces across the Middle East will further fuel the regional conflicts (2), particularly in Iraq and Syria, that have already taken a heavy toll on Europe. While European leaders do share many of the US’s concerns regarding Iran, some European officials privately say that isolating Iran and excluding it from the international community may lead to a new ascent for the Iranian hardliners, politicians who would not back down from taking action “that [will] further fuel regional instability”(3). A regional escalation could appeal to the Iranian leadership for several reasons: it could divert attention from the mounting economic troubles and popular dissatisfaction at home, and achieve the long-sought goal of pushing the US out of Iraq with perceived lower risks of backlash, given President Trump’s desire to contain China and the need to address internal problems caused by the pandemic. Some officials in the Trump administration apparently hope that the compounded effects of COVID-19 and US sanctions will bring Tehran to the negotiation table: “There may be a window in the spring and summer for a negotiated ceasefire that puts us into a holding pattern until the November [US presidential] elections. A combination of pressures on the Iranian leadership … would leave the regime needing relief for limited stability”. However, signals from Tehran indicate that Iran is not interested in negotiations from a position of weakness.
Against this background the only safe assumption is that Tehran will not re-engage in any constructive dialogue with Washington before the US elections in November. Moreover, even this scenario will be influenced by the presidential elections in Iran in May 2021. Given the fact that the Iranian moderates are in freefall (as seen from the elections to the Majlis earlier this year) and Ayatollah Khamenei is preparing his successor, or his legacy, the next American administration will encounter a leadership in Tehran that is very much aggrieved, prideful, risk-averse and hyper-sensitive about appearing weak, domestically, in the Mid-East region, and on the global stage. But even so, given their economic situation, the sharp global decline in demand for oil and crude prices, and the severe pandemic, the Iranians might be convinced to come back to the negotiation table, to back down from violating the provisions of the JCPOA and return to its full compliance. This might be a very good window of opportunity for Europe, which, if it hits the right notes both privately and publicly, will have the chance to de-escalate tensions, to revitalise its diplomacy and to re-establish economic ties. The most important question that arises here – and possibly the only one – is whether Europe is indeed prepared for an open diplomatic confrontation with its natural ally regarding the Iranian issue. Escalation, de-escalation or status quo? this might be a motto for the near future, on this particular international dossier. This essay aims to present three possible scenarios that could describe the future of the US-Iran relationship and its implication for Europe. A return to the past – a hypothesis in which the aggressive dialogue would continue without a constructive finality; Iran’s emergence as regional hegemon; and a Western burst of action – where the European signatories of the JCPOA could decide whether to continue to support the nuclear deal or change the discourse, supporting Washington in its bid to negotiate a new deal.
The first scenario: return to the past
In May 2021, Hassan Rouhani’s term will come to an end, and it is widely believed that a hardliner will come into office, just as the parliamentary elections showed this past February. In short, 2020 has so far been a litany of disasters for the Iranian people. To compound their misery, crisis after crisis has given conservatives and Iran’s unelected institutions the perfect opportunity to sideline voices of dissent, paving a path forward for conservatives to take power in the 2021 presidential election, and control the succession of Iran’s next Supreme Leader. Therefore, the best approach would likely be a return to the JCPOA, on a ‘compliance for compliance’ basis, and build up from there. Rouhani will hand over power in August next year, so there is still a time window of one year to open talks with those moderate politicians who brought Iran to the negotiations table in the first place. Ali Larijani, a former military officer in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps who served as the Speaker of the Parliament of Iran from 2008 to 2020, Saeed Jalili, a former secretary of the Supreme National Security Council from 2007 to 2013 and Iran’s nuclear negotiator, and Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, a former military officer who held office as the Mayor of Tehran from 2005 to 2017, are probably three of the potential conservative candidates who could become president of the Islamic Republic. Such a scenario could take us back in time to June 2005, when the hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, newly elected as president of the Islamic Republic, driven by a new form of Iranian nationalism fundamentally tied to the nuclear programme, caused the Iranian government to resume the enrichment process at the plant in Isfahan. At the time, the EU-3 (France, Germany and the United Kingdom, then still an EU member) reaffirmed its unilateral security guarantees and offered long-time cooperation, but Iranian policymakers rejected the proposal. Throughout 2006 and 2007, the EU negotiators were largely caught between Iran – which was not interested in a compromise, but rather felt emboldened regarding its rising clout in the Middle East – and the US, which saw the referral to the United Nations Security Council as the means to legitimise the containment of Iran (4).
Engagement with Iran has had three distinct periods: the Critical Dialogue (1992-1997) and Comprehensive Dialogue (1998-2003, under presidents Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami); the period from 2003 until 2005, when engagement was championed by the EU-3 and represented the effort to avoid another US-led war in the Middle East; and the period of coercive diplomacy (2005-2012). It was only during the period of coercive diplomacy that the US government participated – both passively and actively – in the P5+1 (US, UK, France, Russian Federation, China and Germany) framework. The Critical Dialogue pursued by the EU between 1992 and 1997 represented the Common Foreign and Security Policy in its infancy, and failed (5) to make any linkages between areas of concern and relations with the EU.
In July 2012, former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told an audience in Iran that the government would not “retreat even one iota from their rights, principles and values against the declining materialistic powers. The enemy strikes at the Iranian nation step by step; but, in return, it receives a stronger, heavier blow”.
History looks set to repeat itself. The newly-elected conservative parliament will most likely bolster hardliners in the 2021 presidential contest and sway public policy debates away from engagement with the US.
History looks set to repeat itself. In 2004, when many reformist voters stayed at home amidst the internal repression of the reformist movement, a weakened reformist president, and also in disappointment at the aggressive speech coming from Washington – the famous collocation “axis of evil” coined by George W. Bush –conservatives were handed a sizable majority in parliament, easing the way into office for Mahmoud Ahamadinejad. The newly-elected conservative parliament will most likely bolster hardliners in the 2021 presidential contest and sway public policy debates away from engagement with the US. If the country’s economic issues and political stagnation continue, Iranians will feel justified in their abstention from the elections, solidifying the notion that the system no longer works for them.
The key problem for Europe in this perspective is perhaps not so much related to the re-emergence of a conservative political elite, but how it will use its power diplomatically, tactically and strategically. While the Iranian market has been reopened for European companies and investments after 2015, and EU trade with Iran reached a total of €21 billion in 2017, the most important companies that had started investing in Iran withdrew after the re-imposition of American sanctions.
Biggest European deals announced in 2017 (Source: The New York Times)
Apart from the economic aspect, a regional incident can always escalate into a more general conflict, just in Europe’s backyard. And in the present circumstances, when Europeans are fighting the next wave of the pandemic and the associated economic crisis, a spillover effect would be more than difficult to manage. The best option would be for EU officials and other European leaders to try to identify convergent interests with the US in the Middle East and do their best to focus on substance, rather than wasting time commenting on Trump’s tweets. They could also try to bring Iranian and American diplomats to the negotiation table before another crisis arises – and before the Russians or the Chinese do so first.
The second scenario: Iran’s emergence as regional hegemon
Ever since 1973 and the first oil shock, the centre of gravity of Middle Eastern politics has been gradually shifting from the eastern Mediterranean and the Arab-Israeli conflict toward the Persian Gulf, where Iran has long harboured ambitions to become a regional power, despite recent escalations in the Eastern Mediterranean. The process was accelerated in 1979 by the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, which dramatically reduced the likelihood of another Arab-Israeli war, and the peak of the Islamic Revolution, which replaced the government of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi with a radical theocratic regime under the leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. In recent years, despite severe regime sanctions, Iran has managed a complex set of regional relations and a considerable measure of success. Just mentioning the connections and proxies Iran has in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen or even Afghanistan, it can be seen that Tehran can wield influence, according to its own needs, over about half of the Middle East region. Therefore, it is no surprise that the nuclear file has two components: a formal one – limiting, even stopping the proliferation process – and an informal one, for which the nuclear issue is the means of pursuing the goal of containing Iran’s regional emergence. Saudi Arabia and Israel – two of Washington’s most important allies in the region – are the main opponents of both Iran and the nuclear deal.
Iran’s regional policy has undergone changes due to a number of internal and external factors. The external factors have mainly followed regional trends and have often been triggered by external powers’ military interventions in the neighbouring countries and/or occupation of those countries. Through a combination of regional trends, often triggered by external powers’ strategies, and Tehran’s definition of national expediency, Iran has become one of the most significant and influential states in the region, and has tailored its foreign policy based on the sovereignty factor (as mentioned in Article 9 of the Iranian Constitution), the influence factor – seeking to maintain strong influence in post-occupation or newly-formed governments in neighbouring countries (such as Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan) – and the ‘balance of power’ factor – concentrating on both international and regional powers (Iran has put a great deal of effort into defying the US’s influence (6) in the region, and has shown a strong degree of aspiration to maintain its leading position as the region’s largest Shia majority country in order to cross-regionally offset the Saudi influence). (7)
The dynamics of the Iran-Syria alliance have become more evident since the crisis in Syria began; both countries have a higher chance of surviving, as well as achieving their long-term goals, through their strategic, military, and economic ties. The relations between the two countries have attracted more headlines since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, but they actually date back to the early stages of the inception of the revolutionary government in Tehran, when Syria was the first Arab country to recognise the provisional government after the Shah’s ouster. The mutually beneficial relations between the two countries have provided Iran with opportunities to use Syria as a guaranteed lifeline supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon, and as a safe channel (8) for shipping undisclosed commercial and military goods, something which became particularly important after the sanctions on Iran were tightened in 2011.
Amid the backdrop of pandemic, sanctions and economic recession, the power of Iran’s conservative establishment has dramatically increased, setting the course for a new era of hardline politics.
Iran has pursued a multifaceted strategic alliance (9) with Syria, in line with the three main pillars of its foreign policy. In line with the sovereignty factor and with keeping Damascus close to Tehran, Iran has retained strategic grounds for retaliating to potential Israeli military aggression. Moreover, in keeping close to the Assad regime, Iran, unlike other regional and international players who have largely alienated Assad since the crisis, has maintained a great deal of influence in the Syrian government. Such influence does not necessarily mean that Iran’s green light would guarantee Assad’s exit, but broadly speaking, Iran is perhaps the only regional player that the Assad government trusts so far. Finally, since the beginning of the Syrian crisis Iran has been the only regional player willing to and capable of putting boots on the ground (10). This kind of strategy has maintained the ‘balance of power factor’, which is a key concern in Iran’s foreign policy.
Iran is not expected to cede its consolidation in Syria, despite its economic difficulties and the danger of extensive popular protests related to the coronavirus pandemic. Moreover, Iran has been assisting Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad in retaking Idlib province and encircling the Kurdish areas.
Iraq, the former foe and current ally, is an important pillar of the Iranian foreign policy; since as far back as 2003, the influence factor has been translated into control of the post-Saddam Iraqi governments. From that time, Iran has supported, either directly or through proxies, the creation of a Shia-dominated government in Baghdad. Another major goal of Iranian foreign policy in Iraq is to win the competition with other players involved in the region. The military campaign against ISIS in Iraq has triggered a more pragmatic Iranian approach towards the West, somewhat similar to their tactical cooperation in defeating al-Qaeda and the Taliban after the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. Some European states, such as France, Germany, Italy and the UK, have joined the US-led anti-ISIS air coalition, while others have provided training and arms to Iraq’s central army and to Kurdish Peshmerga forces. In private, Western officials say that Iran has been the most willing and effective force (11) in coordinating ground troops with the coalition’s air campaign against ISIS. Europeans would have preferred a strong Iraqi security force that could act independently of Iran, but they recognise that no Iraqi or foreign actor has the appetite or ability to replace Iran (12). Moreover, maintaining influence in Iraqi politics has become more crucial to the Islamic Republic as Iraq’s large market provides an accommodating environment for Iran’s licit and illicit trade (13). Europe can tolerate, and to a degree even welcome Iran’s operations against ISIS, as long as they do not weaken Iraq’s central government or reignite sectarian divisions. In addition, Europe will want to see Iran taking a more active part in tackling the actual and perceived sectarian tensions associated with its role in Iraq. One way that might be acceptable to Iran would be for its high-ranking political, military, and religious figures to follow the example set by Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in condemning sectarian acts (14) and working with Baghdad to shape inclusive political representation for Sunnis and other minorities.
Even amidst the pandemic crisis, the ‘maximum pressure’ strategy imposed by Washington and the large number of victims caused by COVID-19, Tehran is continuing its strategic approach to Iraq. In April 2020, 11 Iranian naval vessels aggressively veered close to five American military vessels transiting the Persian Gulf. This clearly shows that the regime in Tehran has no intention of surrendering, and is carefully planning and executing a strategy based on calculated and calibrated actions.
The Hezbollah model was the most effective way to spread the ideology of the Islamic Revolution, and Lebanon was the right environment to implement this strategy. Iran’s financing of Hezbollah’s military and social services enables the group to solidify its role as the protector and provider of Lebanon’s Shia community. This core constituencyprovides the base for Hezbollah and Iran to fight for dominance throughout the Middle East. With Iranian support, Hezbollah has emerged as the most powerful military and political force in Lebanon.
Iran’s ambitions in Afghanistan are not necessarily hegemonic. Tehran knows that it cannot dominate its neighbour completely, yet it has certain interests to protect, such as securing its eastern border, preserving the flow of water from Afghanistan, countering drugs trafficking and dealing with the large Afghan refugee population on its soil. Also, Iran is particularly anxious to prevent a total Taliban victory in Afghanistan and the expansion of Pakistani power. The Iranian government has attempted to achieve its objectives through a variety of means, such as cultural and religious bounds, economic tools and even supporting various militias and armed groups (15). Iran’s activities in Afghanistan have not drawn the same attention as its operations in the rest of the region, but it still remains an important and often difficult arena of Iranian foreign policy – meaning, above all, to see stability in Afghanistan.
Furthermore, Iran recently sent five oil tankers to Venezuela, violating that country’s embargo, and thus crossing the regional border of its desire for influence. In doing so, Iran escalated its activities in the western hemisphere, even if it is not the first time Tehran has meddled in South American affairs: relations between Tehran and Caracas go back as far as the 1960s, when both countries were founding members of OPEC; Iran’s proxy Hezbollah has also been sending mercenaries to the tri-border region of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.
Amid the backdrop of pandemic, sanctions and economic recession, the power of Iran’s conservative establishment has dramatically increased, setting the course for a new era of hardline politics. Conservatives politicians and critics – the very people whom campaigned against Rouhani’s administration and his platform of external engagement and internal moderation – are more likely to continue, or in some cases to resume, the policy of regional influence from where they left off. In this scenario, Europe needs to institute a paradigm shift in its relations with Iran.The European Union needs to move from a country-specific policy focused on non-proliferation toward a Gulf strategy that accounts for the Islamic Republic’s ties with its littoral neighbours. As it happens, the promotion of intraregional cooperation is part of the EU’s history and continuing success – despite current shortcomings in handling migration, stabilising national debts and fighting the coronavirus pandemic.
In institutional terms, the timing on the EU side is good now. The European Commission that took office in December 2019 aims to be “more strategic, more assertive and more united” in its foreign policy, in the words of its president, Ursula von der Leyen. After the US-Iranian escalation in Iraq in January 2020, the EU’s Council of Ministersmandated the union’s foreign policy chief to talk to all parties to help de-escalate tensions in the region, support political dialogue, and promote a political regional solution. Europe can now move beyond its exclusive nuclear focus with Iran, and shift to a relationship based on engagement, not containment. This would allow the EU to pursue its interests with Iran across a range of issues, in particular on de-escalating those conflicts in the Middle East in which Iran is involved. Despite the regional disorder, Iran is one of the few countries in the region that has a fully functioning state, security, and intelligence apparatus. Relations with Iran matter to Europe, in particular because of Iran’s deep footprint in almost every crisis that is currently unfolding in this region of strategic importance. Europeans have to deal with the repercussions of the Iraqi state’s disintegration after the US-led invasion in 2003, their incorrect calculations on how quickly Bashar al-Assad would fall in Syria, and the rising extremism across the region. The surge of ISIS has further underscored the volatile nature of the threats to Europe from internal radicalisation and the backlash in the form of Islamophobia, the potential return to Europe of citizens now fighting in Syria, terrorism, and the human cost of the regional crises.
Although focusing on either Iran as a country or the nuclear deal as an issue is too narrow an approach in and of itself, the JCPOA should still be the EU’s point of departure. Even if Iran’s successive steps to reduce its commitments endanger what is left of nuclear cooperation under the deal, the coronavirus pandemic provides an additional reason to open a humanitarian channel that allows for regular trade in medical products and food staples with Iran, and from there to build a way to the negotiations table.
The third scenario: a Western burst of action
It is almost certain that in a year from now, Iran’s foreign policy will take on a new dimension, and the issue of the nuclear agreement will be more likely one of the main points on the next Iranian government agenda. Yet this scenario involves two ramifications, conditional upon the US presidential elections in November 2020, and those in Iran in May 2021. Whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden wins, the next American president will have about seven months to deal with the ongoing administration regarding the future of the nuclear deal and, in consequence, with Iran’s ambition in the region. Hassan Rouhani will end his second term, and he will hand over office to the next administration in August 2021, so there is a window of opportunity to negotiate with the moderates who brought Iran to the negotiations table in the first place.
If Trump is re-elected it is more likely that the ‘maximum pressure’ strategy will continue. However, there is a chance to open up to an overture from Tehran, given the fact that the country’s economic and health conditions are such a precarious state. So, in order to avoid further mass uprisings, whose effects could be more profound than the previous ones, the current moderate regime in Tehran could take at least a minimal reconciliation with Washington into account. In spite of his aggressive rhetoric, some analysts have argued that President Trump’s reluctance to launch a military strike against Iran is proof of his prudence and restraint. Starting a war with Iran might lead to bloody retaliations against US’s regional allies; moreover, it would require a new military involvement in the Middle East, in addition to those in Iraq and Afghanistan. Such a scenario would be inconsistent with the Trump campaign’s slogan of ‘America First’. The fact that President Rouhani has just listed a set of conditions under which Iran would resume dialogue with the United States – even if Mike Pompeo has dismissed them – could send a message to the US administration that Iran is not completely closed to negotiations. However, it is equally clear that Washington will have to make certain concessions, otherwise any such zero-sum game will be completely rejected by Tehran.
Biden’s election to the White House presents fewer and more accessible variables than the previous scenario regarding Iran. Even though the remarks made by Antony Blinken, a former Deputy Secretary of State with the Obama administration – “Iran would have to come back into full compliance and unless and until it did, obviously, all sanctions would remain in place” – sparked a backlash in Iran, and Fars News, a conservative outlet affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, seized on Blinken’s remarks to say that Biden’s approach to Iran will not differ drastically from that of the Trump administration, it is more likely that the Democratic Party’s candidate will try to save some parts of Barack Obama’s legacy, including the JCPOA.
Regardless of who the new US president is as of January 2021, one thing is certain: Europeans will have to make a decision on Iran, either trying to save the nuclear deal or rallying behind Washington if the new administration decides otherwise.
Regardless of who the new US president is as of January 2021, one thing is certain: Europeans will have to make a decision on Iran, either trying to save the nuclear deal or rallying behind Washington if the new administration decides otherwise. “Europeans view the nuclear deal as a significant foreign policy achievement”, analyst Kelsey Davenport has said; yet at the same time, the EU could come to rethink their stance if Iran continues to test the limits imposed by the JCPOA. However, at least for now, the EU (together with the United Kingdom, China and the Russian Federation) seems willing to do its best to save the deal, to continue to use INSTEX – the EU-Iran trading mechanism designed to allow Europeans to bypass US sanctions and continue trade with Tehran – which just has concluded its first transaction (facilitating the export of medical goods), and to cooperate with Tehran on several issues affecting the Middle East. France and Germany, signatories of the JCPOA, could force the pace of the EU’s involvement in the Iranian issue, especially as the Europeans begin to lose visibility on an international stage which is now occupied, and will probably remain so in the near future, by the new type of cold confrontation between US and China. The rest of the Central and Eastern European member states will most likely follow the approach of Paris and Berlin; the only visible exception could be Poland, whose opinion in the aftermath after the US unilateral withdrawal from JCPOA in May 2018 was that the “EU needs more empathy toward the US over the Iran deal”. But this stance did not come as a surprise, as Warsaw is keen for security assurances from the US as a deterrence policy against Russia. Nevertheless, the Polish minister of foreign affairs, Jacek Krzysztof Czaputowicz, implied that Poland had not yet made a final decision: “We need to think, there is still time. This doesn’t mean we don’t feel part of the EU community in these discussions … We will see what other EU members think”. On the other hand, some US observers believe that, when faced with a choice of doing business with Iran or facing economic secondary sanctions, European governments will opt to preserve their ties with the US. They also tend to believe that, by threatening to adopt a confrontational position toward Iran – dismantling the nuclear deal, pushing for regime change, or even conducting limited military strikes against Iran – the US will coerce (16) Europeans to jump onboard with less extreme policies, such as the renegotiation of the JCPOA or demanding that Iran change its behaviour on regional issues. In opposing the current administration in Washington policy toward Iran, European governments – especially Paris and Berlin – find themselves in the unusual position of being closer to Russia and China than to their traditional transatlantic partner (17). Even if the EU’s leaders do share many of the concerns of the US with regard to Iran, they have consistently voiced unanimous support for the JCPOA, and have broadly favoured similar multilateral engagements to address outstanding issues regarding the Islamic Republic.
The COVID-19 crisis comes at a particularly difficult political moment for the Iranian government. In November 2019, its decision to abruptly raise fuel prices triggered widespread protests, the latest and most significant bout of unrest due to economic discontent and political stagnation. Security forces brutally suppressed the uprising, killing hundreds and imprisoning thousands. In January, Iran downed a Ukrainian civilian airliner, having purportedly confused it for an incoming US missile at a time of heightened bilateral tensions following the US killing of General Qassem Soleimani. All these events have eroded public confidence in the current government in Tehran, and with the 2021 presidential elections looming, hardliners are seizing the opportunity to promise a more effective leadership. But given the history of ultra-conservative governments, the likelihood of negotiations with Iran will be much lower, even for Europe, which has managed, at least for now, to keep the door open to diplomacy with Tehran.
While the ‘maximum pressure’ strategy has not tempered Iran’s policies in the region, the Europeans should attempt to de-escalate the situation. Even if the ‘New Europe’ – namely Central and Eastern European countries – tends to support US foreign policy on most Middle East issues, the Iranian question seems to be its Achilles heel, as all European states, including the CEE, could feel the effect of a possible escalation of events in the Middle East region.
The first two scenarios described above would set back the confidence and rapprochement already built between EU and Iran by at least a decade. European countries should now prepare to minimise the damage and preserve their strategic interests on non-proliferation, pursue stability in the Middle East, and keep an eye on the on economic and energy strategy. The question arises: Does the EU want to be a global power or not? However, the reality on the ground is that Europe does not have the tools – or possibly even the will – to project its power. Europe’s financial resources cannot match those of the US, and more fundamentally, deep divisions remain within Europe over whether it should even seek power, with or without the UK. Yet, the Iranian issue is far greater than Iran – in reality it epitomises a structural turning point in the transatlantic relationship.
Nevertheless, as cynical it might sound, the ongoing pandemic crisis could be an opportunity for Europe. While the US has to manage a set of internal crises – pandemic, rising unemployment, and possibly further riots across the country – the EU can step up, and as a starter, protect its important humanitarian connection with Iran. Given that the country continues to be the epicentre of the pandemic in a fragile Middle East, the coronavirus is likely to lead to increased refugee flows to Europe. Building from here, the EU should form a coalition on non-nuclear issues, focused on freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf, and the conflicts in Yemen and Iraq (18). Also, the European governments will need to push back against the US-led sanction regime so that their companies will not be penalised by the US for undertaking legal business with Iran. Should Europe (and the US fail) to provide relief to Iran in such grave circumstances, this would turn the Iranian public against them for generations. Moreover, it would give ammunition to those in Iran who favour confrontation with the West. To devise smart contingency plans, it will be imperative for European governments to increase their coordination with China, Russia, and the other Asian economic giants such as India, South Korea and Japan (19). Not only do their interests align with respect to the JCPOA, they also share a more general concern about the use of secondary US sanctions.
Europeans see the nuclear deal as a key pillar of regional and world security, and have struggled to keep the agreement alive, despite US pressure. It might be the time now for a more assertive approach, one that will add to Europe’s credibility and strengthen its position. It will increase the likelihood that Iran will take steps to return to full compliance with its nuclear commitments, because Tehran’s endgame is to restart oil exports, to enter the international finance system, and to overcome the pandemic crisis.
At the same time, a principled stance by Europe would pay off regardless of the outcome of the US presidential elections. If Joe Biden wins the election, Europeans will have kept the door open for a US return to the nuclear deal. If, however, Trump is re-elected, Europe will have taken a long overdue step towards protecting itself from further coercive action.
(1). Mir. H. Sadat, James P. Hughes (2006), ‘US-Iran Engagement Through Afghanistan’, Middle East Policy, 17(1).
(2). Ellie Geranmayeh (2017), ‘The Coming Clash: Why Iran will Divide Europe from the United States’, ECFR, October 2017.
(4). Bernd Kaussler (2014) Iran’s Nuclear Diplomacy. Power politics and conflict resolution, New York: Routledge, pp. 36-37.
(5). Bernd Kaussler (2014), op. cit., p. 94.
(6). Sara Bazoobandi (2014), ‘Iran’s Regional Policy: Interests, Challenges and Ambitions’, ISPI, Analysis no. 275, November 2014.
(9). Sara Bazoobandi (2014), op. cit., pp. 4-5.
(11).Ellie Geranmayeh (2017), op. cit., p. 4.
(13). Sara Bazoobandi (2014), op. cit., p. 6.
(14). Ellie Geranmayeh (2017), op. cit., pp. 5-6.
(15). Alireza Nader et. al. (2014), ‘Iran’s Influence in Afghanistan. Implications for the U. S. Drawdown’, RAND, pp. 1-74.
(16). Ellie Geranmayeh (2017), op. cit., p. 4.
(18). Ellie Geranmayeh (2017), op. cit., p. 1.
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