Iran and the European Union: Reciprocal Strategies and Viewpoints

Monday, July 14, 2014

Behzad Khoshandam
Ph.D. Candidate in International Relations & Expert on International Issues

The European Union is the most important regional organization in international system and the most complicated multilateral institutional and diplomatic entity in contemporary world. Now, considering economic, trade, political, security, and trend making importance of this regional organization, on the one hand, and Iran's growing strategic influence as an effective player and source of new developments in international interactions, on the other hand, the question is what strategy and approach is pursued by these two political players toward each other? A more important question is “based on reciprocal strategies and approaches adopted by the two sides, what factors could possibly affect future configuration of relations between these two actors?”

EU’s strategy toward Iran

Based on many considerations, the European Union has a special viewpoint on Iran in strategic terms. The European Union shapes its strategy toward Iran on the basis of the Union’s strategic goals within framework of international system, trans-Atlantic interactions and the EU’s approach to the Middle East, which can be described and explained by the word “expedientism.” Therefore, considering the issue of stability and balance of powers in the Middle East, the gravitational center for shaping, evolution and continuation of the EU’s strategy toward Iran during the past few decades has been subject to the logic of change and stability. This point should be taken into account especially from the more profound viewpoint of the European Union’s relations with and approach to its peripheral regions, including its relations with Atlantic partners and actors in the Middle East in parallel to vertical, horizontal and sectoral enlargement of the EU.

In addition, the European Union’s strategy toward Iran is affected by other interventionist variables such as the United States, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), major national European players such as the UK, Germany and France, single or divided European identity, the issue of peace between Arabs and the Israeli regime, security of energy, human rights, Russia, importance of Persian Gulf, and relations between the European Union and other prominent global political players and actors.

On this basis, such conceptual and theoretical issues as independence, governance, mutual dependence, unity, coalition, modernism, balance of powers, mediation, development, peace, war, security and fear have been among major indices that have set the direction in which the strategy of the member states of the European Union toward Iran has been moving during the past three decades.

The evolutionary and developmental course of the EU’s strategy toward Iran has become more purposive, especially following the implementation of Maastricht Treaty within the borders of the European Union and institutionalization of the EU’s goals in 1993. On the whole, this strategy has been based on the issue of institutionalism; the EU’s goal to achieve effective multilateralism; a wide spectrum of international and regional issues, including such issues as human rights, terrorism, and extremism; the peace talks between Arabs and Israel; as well as Iran's nuclear issue and the security of energy.

Simultaneous with the implementation of the Maastricht Treaty by European institutions, which led to the emergence of this union as a regional security actor, the EU was trying to promote its relations with influential international players. In order to achieve this goal, the EU established relatively more balanced relations with Iran through a better understanding of Iran's developments in 1990s, though those relations were also punctuated with certain periods of tension.

In Iran during 1990s, many Iranians held high respect for interaction with European philosophical norms and values as a result of positive historical subjectivity toward Europe, and were very hopeful about integrationist trends in Europe. On the other hand, some member states of the European Union made considerable efforts through new wave of enlargement of the European Union to give originality to the EU’s approach to Iran at the beginning of the third millennium

Historical studies show that adoption of this approach by the European Union toward Iran has not been limited to the third millennium alone. As a result of the globalization of communications and the influence and dominance of three major European countries on the EU’s policies toward Iran, the Union’s approach has gradually shifted toward aggressive treatment of Iran during the whole time that the EU has been involved in handling the Islamic Republic’s nuclear energy program. Therefore, during the first and second decades of the third millennium, as a result of international developments and under heavy pressure and influence of the United States’ foreign policy, the EU’s approach toward Iran has been aimed at imposing strategic restrictions on Iran.

During the past few decades, the European Union has been trying to pursue its strategy toward Iran through such means as diplomacy, multilateral diplomacy, general diplomacy, soft power, forming coalitions and alliances as well as containment policy and sanctions. The prominence of the sanctions policy in the EU’s strategy toward Iran started in 2010 and has continued up to the present time.

A repeated review of the EU’s strategy toward Iran will show that implementation of that strategy in practice has failed to meet the goals of effective multilateralism and many other strategic goals that this important regional organization has been trying to achieve through regional and international interactions and arrangements. Therefore, the track records of the Green Continent’s strategy toward Iran during the past decades have been mostly negative in terms of achieving the goals that were pursued by the EU, and it has also failed to help the realization of the single European identity. Therefore, the European countries’ strategy should be certainly reviewed by the future generation of political officials in Europe before engaging in any interaction with Iran.

As for the future outlook, it is expected that the strategy of the European Union vis-à-vis an important and influential country like Iran will be a function of the bandwagoning policy of the Union within framework of international and Middle Eastern power equations, and it will be especially influenced by developments in the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) of the EU. Single European identity, profound relations between the EU and the United States, the viewpoint of this Union on the conflict between Arabs and Israeli regime and also the EU’s attention to mediatory and normative capacities are also expected to play a remarkable role in the continued implementation of this strategy.

Iran's strategy towards European Union

Since new institutional arrangements took shape in Europe following the World War II, Iran's strategy toward the European Union has been based on the study of developments and trends on both sides and can be described and explained by such terms as “security seeking.” In fact, Iran's strategy toward the European Union during the past few decades has been dependent on Tehran’s understanding of the dominant concepts like Atlanticism, Europeanism, sovereignty, and the national security of Iran.

The concept of Atlanticism that governs Iran's strategy toward the EU, has its root in the anti-US approach that has prevailed over Iran's foreign policy since the early years after the victory of the Islamic Revolution in the country. It is based on the understanding that large groups of ordinary people as well as political elites of Iran consider the United States and European countries as a single entity and look upon them as the single Western power bloc without differentiating between them in terms of the type of interaction that these two actors have with Iran.

According to the proponents of this view, the standpoint and the type of interaction that the EU has with Iran should not be considered separate from the hostile viewpoint and approach of the United States toward Iran. The proponents also argue that all efforts should be made in the course of interactions between Iran and the European Union to thwart possible US plots against the Islamic Republic through interaction with Europe.

Another concept which can be discussed with regard to the regulation of Iran's strategy toward the European Union from the viewpoint of a large group of Iranian people and political elites is the concept of Europeanism. According to this concept, which is a favorite with many political elites that follow institutionalist or legalist views in Iran, the European Union is seen as a mechanism consisting of regional institutions and organizations whose foreign and security policies toward third countries are mostly Europeanist and indigenous.

During the past few decades, the two aforesaid concepts have played a very important role in the evolution and development of Iran's strategy toward the European Union. Evolution of that strategy can be discussed within five periods of time.

From a historical standpoint, relations between Iran and the European Community (predecessor of the EU) started in 1963 with the conclusion of the first trade agreement between Iran and the European Community. That agreement was extended every year up to 1973, and the beginning of the first international oil crisis. However, in 1977, the agreement was gradually discarded by the two sides. From that year up to the early 1990s, relations between Iran and the European countries were based on bilateral diplomacy and were not based on institutional relations with the European Community as an integrationist union or a regional organization.

The European Community’s approach to Iraq’s imposed war against Iran (1980-1988) was not supportive of Iran or even impartial. Therefore, up to the early 1990s, relations between Iran and the European Community were characterized by stagnation on both sides. Thereafter, the end of the world’s bipolar system, the termination of the Iraqi imposed war against Iran, Iran's effective and constructive role in liberating Western hostages in Lebanon, adoption of a neutral policy by Iran during the first Persian Gulf war (1991) and emergence of integrationist trends in Europe in 1993 were major factors, which prompted both sides to try and establish new relations on the basis of mutual respect.

A summit meeting of the European Union in Edinburg in December 1992 formed the basis of later critical dialogues between Iran and the EU as a result of the dominance of Europeanist and Iran-oriented approaches on bilateral relations. Those dialogues, which were focused on differences between the two sides and problems that existed on the way of expanding bilateral relations, continued up to 1997 and did not include negotiations over economic and trade issues. The effort made by each side to recognize the international status of the opposite side was the most important starting point, which led to the continuation of these talks in the following years.

The verdict handed down by the German court hearing the case of shooting in Mykonos in April 1997, led to suspension of relations between these two actors as a result of dominance of an Atlanticism on those relations. Following the election of Mohammad Khatami as Iran's president, a new round of dialogues kicked off between the two sides from 1997 to 2003, whose goal was further expansion of relations and their scope covered various issues from development of bilateral cooperation on regional issues to the issue of energy security. The dialogue continued up to 2001 alternatively in the capital cities of the European countries and Iran. Finding practical grounds for cooperation were the main focus of the dialogues, whose most important highlight was efforts made to pave the way for the conclusion of a trade and cooperation agreement between these two actors.

From the middle of 2002 and concurrent with the beginning of developments related to Iran's nuclear energy program, once again the eyes in Iran were riveted on promotion of cooperation with Europe in order to create a balance in Iran's relations with big powers. Starting from that year, diplomatic negotiations between Iran and some important members of the European Union, as an effective international institution, entered a new phase under the general title of “nuclear negotiations” between Iran and the P5+1 of countries, which is alternatively known as E3+3 (or E3/EU+3). The result of nuclear negotiations between Iran and the European Union in Tehran on the basis of “Eurocentrism for solving international issues” was the issuance of Tehran Declaration in 2003 and the conclusion of Paris Agreement in 2004. Following those breakthroughs, sinusoidal relations between the two sides continued through formulation of more plans such as the plan proposed to Iran by the EU in August 2005 and another plan which was put forth on June 1, 2006.

After a number of important members of the European Union supported referral of Iran's nuclear dossier to the United Nations Security Council in February 2006, once more, the dominance of the concept of Atlanticism on relations between Iran and the EU became evident. From that time up to 2014, the concept of Atlanticism has been a major hallmark of relations between Iran and the European Union. As a consequence of this state of events, the EU started in 2012 to enforce unilateral sanctions that it had adopted against Iran in 2010. The enforcement of the European sanctions against Iran has created serious obstacles in the way for further cooperation between Iran and Europe in such areas as oil and gas industries, petrochemicals, shipping and insurance.

Judging on the basis of the existing effective trends, developments and indices, it seems that Iran's strategy toward the EU in the future will continue to be influenced by the concept of Atlanticism that dominates the foreign relations of the European Union as well as security-seeking approach that prevails over Iran's foreign policy. A good evidence to this issue is that even after the Joint Plan of Action was concluded between Iran and the P5+1 group in the Swiss city of Geneva, no tangible changes have come about in the EU’s sanctions regime against Iran.

In conclusion, any effort aimed at building scenarios about future relations between Iran and the European Union should pay due attention to the following three key points: 1. Geopolitical and geoeconomic importance and status of these two international actors; 2. The changing quality of Iran-US and Iran-EU relations with due care for such issues as  Iran's nuclear dossier, the changing environment in the Middle East, the issue of energy, and relations between Israel and the European Union; and 3. Changes in the foreign policy of the European Union in the face of international developments with an eye on such issues as security seeking, independence seeking, and national pride of Iranians; the public opinion in Europe; and huge internal developments that these two actors will have to deal with.

Key Words:  Iran, European Union, Reciprocal Strategies, Viewpoints, Atlanticism, Sanctions, Europeanism, Expedientism, Khoshandam

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