Iran’s Position in European Union’s Strategic Assessment

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Davood Kiani
PhD in International Relations and Expert in European Studies

After the nuclear talks got underway between Iran and the P5+1 group of countries under the administration of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and as the possibility of an agreement between the two sides seemed to be high, Europeans, like the Iranian side, could not hide their willingness to restart relations or even wait for the final result of the negotiations. Therefore, they started sending economic, political, and educational delegations at national and European Union levels to Tehran, and in doing so, they actually wanted to take preliminary measures for the resumption of bilateral relations in the run-up to the definitive removal of sanctions against Iran. An interesting example to the point was the European Parliament, which was constantly under the influence of anti-Iran lobbies before the nuclear talks and took sharp and critical positions against expansion of European countries’ relations with Iran in its documents, statements and resolutions. However, during the past six months, it has sent two high-ranking delegations to Iran, one led by head of the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, and the other one headed by the speaker of the parliament, which was actually the first visit to Iran by a speaker of the European Parliament.

The question that can be raised at a time that Iran and Europe seem to be bent on resumption of ties is whether a change in behavioral model of the European Union toward Iran can be expected as a result of this process? There are a set of developments that have caused the answer to this question to be largely positive. First of all, it must be noted that Europe has been never before so entangled in various kinds of economic, geopolitical and security crises. The economic crisis has been slowing down or totally stopping the economic growth of major members of the European Union (EU) for more than four years. On the other hand, the crisis in Ukraine and the economic war between Russia and the EU has so far inflicted USD 100 billion in losses on the EU members. Finally and perhaps most importantly, is the crisis in Syria whose aftermath for Europe has been the flow of about one million Syrian refugees toward Europe in 2014 and 2015; a crisis that due to the rise of Daesh has led to spread of terrorist groups into member states of the EU.

Evidently, at a time that Europe is grappling with such serious crises, possible détente with Iran would be hope-inspiring for the European Union and its main members from several viewpoints. Firstly, European companies will be once more able to claim a share of Iran's avid market. Of course, trade with Iran – which is currently faced with a profound economic crisis as a result of international sanctions, imposed on the country and its own economic problems – accounts for a small share in Europe’s total trade, but even that small share can mean creation of more than 100,000 jobs for a Europe that is experiencing its own crises.

Secondly, the greatest security challenge faced by Europe is currently the issue of Daesh terrorism and influx of immigrants. Both issues emanate from the crisis in Syria. Some reports say that more than 7,000 militants from Europe have already joined the ranks of Daesh in Syria. The mere possibility of this group returning to European countries is horrendous for many Europeans. On the other hand, the influx of a huge number of immigrants, mostly from Syria, into Europe and lack of any clear prospects for preventing this immigration wave, poses a new threat to social and economic security of European governments. Of course, the only exception is Germany which needs part of these immigrants to energize its economy. Under these circumstances, resumption of relations with Iran, which plays an important role in Syria’s developments while feeling the economic and security pressures of crisis in that country as well, can be a determining factor for European countries. European countries have on various occasions welcomed Iran's participation in negotiations on Syria, which per se proves that Europe is willing for stability to be restored to Syria as soon as possible. Of course, it seems that Europeans do not have much hope in preserving territorial integrity of Syria, but it also seems that their insistence on the need for Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down is losing strength and they are now more focused on defeating Daesh and restoring calm to the Arab country.

Thirdly, after witnessing the fate of the Arab Spring, which was either more instability and civil war in the Arab world, or a return to power by military strongmen, or resurgence of powerful nationalism and Takfiri extremism, European countries have reached the conclusion that neglecting the human rights situation in these countries and absence of civil society institutions in their Arab allies is a mistake. Before the aforesaid developments in the Arab world, Europe put more pressure on Iran compared with the Arab countries, urging Tehran to observe human rights norms and democratic standards. This came despite the fact that such standards were better observed by Iran than the aforementioned Arab states. From the viewpoint of European countries, the existence of such terrorist and extremist groups as Daesh, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, Ahrar ash-Sham, al-Nusra Front and so forth, is a direct outcome of the absence of a powerful civil society institutions in Arab countries, especially in the littoral states of the Persian Gulf, topped by Saudi Arabia. This is why the European Parliament has adopted three resolutions against Saudi Arabia as well as its domestic and foreign policies in a matter of less than a year within 2015.

On the whole, it seems that Iran has gained more importance in strategic assessment of European countries compared to the past.

However, it is too early to expect fundamental developments in Iran's relations with Europe. It seems that Europeans will continue to observe the old-fashioned division of labor with regard to Iran according to which the Council of the European Union (also known as the Council of Ministers) and the European Commission will focus on the expansion of relations with Tehran while the European Parliament will continue its policy of criticizing the human rights situation in Iran. However, the European Union will also try to establish more robust economic and political ties with Iran compared to the past, and the prowess and skill of statesmen within Rouhani administration for interaction with the European Union, which was not the previous administration’s policy, will greatly facilitate expansion of these relations.

Key Words: Iran, European Union, Strategic Assessment, Hassan Rouhani, P5+1, Bilateral Relations, Daesh, Terrorist Groups, Sanctions, Syria, Immigrants, European Commission, Council of the European Union, Human Rights, Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, Ahrar ash-Sham, Al-Nusra, Takfiri Extremism, Bashar Assad, Kiani

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*Photo Credit: Tasnim News Agency

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