Relations with Iran: a test for EU strategic autonomy


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Eldar Mamedov
Eldar Mamedov

Political Advisor for the Socialists & Democrats Group in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament

Photo of This article is part of our Iran in Focus series.
This article is part of our Iran in Focus series.

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Show more information on This article is part of our Iran in Focus series.

Friends of Europe’s Iran in Focus series aims to identify new approaches to diplomatic relations with Iran by establishing an understanding of the domestic political context and recent developments in international relations that jointly underpin the country’s political decision-making.

By taking a wider perspective on security and focusing on the role of women, the state of civil society and the human rights situation in the country, the series brings a fresh and informed perspective on diplomatic engagement that empowers domestic activism.

Amplifying a varied range of voices, these think pieces examine the challenges and opportunities of civic movements and organisations in Iran. Priorities include women’s rights and political participation, freedom of speech and of the media, the humanitarian considerations of international sanctions, and the role of international actors in Iran.

Our articles and the Iran in Focus series as a whole will engage with these overlapping themes, promote new and diverse opinions, and provide a coherent and progressive reconfiguration of diplomatic relations with Iran, including concrete conclusions and recommendations, based on strategic thinking and mutual interests.

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Until recently, the European agenda on Iran was entirely centred on the revival of the nuclear agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). It had been left on life support since the unilateral decision of the former US president Donald Trump to withdraw from the agreement in 2018. However, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine introduced new variables that require a strategic review of the European Union’s relations with Iran. Although restoring the JCPOA is still a core priority, the EU should look beyond the nuclear file and provide incentives to Iran to pursue a balanced foreign policy to the furthest extent possible and avoid pushing it to a tighter embrace of Moscow.

Overall, the Islamic Republic of Iran has adopted a position that is broadly sympathetic with the Russian narrative. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and President Ebrahim Raisi, as well as the bulk of the conservative press, attributed responsibility for the war to ‘NATO’s provocations and expansionism’.

That should not be surprising. There is a strong anti-Western component in the thinking of Iranian conservatives or hardliners, now controlling all vestiges of power in the Islamic Republic. Like their ‘Eurasianist’ or ‘sovereignist’ counterparts in Russia, for years they were propagating the notions of an inexorable ‘Western decline’ and an ascending alternative world order, led by Russia and China, in which Iran – in their view – could truly find its place. In an official parlance, these notions translated into a ‘turn to the East’ foreign policy announced by the Raisi administration.

However, reluctance to fully back the Russian side also reflects Tehran’s drive to preserve some room for manoeuvre or strategic autonomy in its foreign policy

However, a careful reading of the Iranian position reveals a more nuanced picture. Rather than support Russia, like Syria, Belarus or North Korea, Iran abstained in the United Nations General Assembly vote on the resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Iran did not recognise Crimea as part of the Russian Federation nor did it recognise the independence of the so-called ‘people’s republics’ of Luhansk and Donetsk. While being in close touch with Moscow, Amir-Abdollahian also spoke with his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, who afterwards declared that Iran was against the war. The same statements of the Iranian leaders that blamed the US and NATO for the situation also emphasised the need for an urgent ceasefire and a political solution.

Such a stance is partly explained by Iran’s fear of separatism within its own borders, embodied in the activities of the Kurdish, Baluch and Ahwazi Arab secessionist groups. However, reluctance to fully back the Russian side also reflects Tehran’s drive to preserve some room for manoeuvre or strategic autonomy in its foreign policy.

Iran’s engagement in talks on the JCPOA’s revival is strong evidence of this. That a conservative government would negotiate in earnest with the Western powers, though not directly with the US, was not a foregone conclusion. Many prominent members of the Raisi team, in fact, were outspoken critics of the original JCPOA – including the current chief negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani.

it reacted with poorly concealed irritation when Russia […] threw the JCPOA talks in jeopardy by demanding that sanctions do not affect its trade with Iran

It took seven months – since Raisi assumed power in August 2021 – to reach the threshold of a deal; this is actually a rather short period, despite regular warnings from the Western participants that the ‘time for an agreement was running out’. To pursue the restoration of the JCPOA was a strategic decision by the system, blessed by Ayatollah Khamenei. Despite all the ‘resistance’ rhetoric, the Islamic Republic’s establishment understands the value of lifting American sanctions and unshackling the Iranian economy. That’s why it reacted with poorly concealed irritation when Russia, following the introduction of the Western sanctions for its invasion of Ukraine, threw the JCPOA talks in jeopardy by demanding that sanctions do not affect its trade with Iran.

Iran won’t necessarily turn its back on Russia completely. In fact, conservatives see in the new sanctions against Russia, some of which strikingly resemble those imposed against Iran earlier, a new opportunity to deepen the cooperation between the two countries.

There is also, however, a realpolitik consideration. The Biden administration cannot provide Iran with the guarantees that a restored JCPOA would survive a US return to Republican power, possibly as early as 2024. Republican heavyweights have made it abundantly clear that they have no intention whatsoever of honouring whatever agreement Biden may come to with the Iranians.

In these circumstances, it is prudent for Tehran to keep from antagonising Moscow. If in 2024, or later, the US reneged from the agreement again, at least Iran will be covered by Russia in the UN Security Council. Not unlike other Middle Eastern states, including US partners such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Iran – in its own way – is hedging against wild oscillations in US foreign policy depending on which party is in power domestically.

The Russian aggression in Ukraine […] has proved that European strategic autonomy […] is no longer a luxury, but a necessity

This is where the EU should step in. The Islamic Republic is not going to turn into a pro-Western state anytime soon. However, the EU could use the space opened by Iran’s balancing act to encourage its strategic autonomy and multi-vector tendencies, as opposed to one-sided alignment with Russia. In practical terms, that means, first and foremost, to learn from the failed experience of the original JCPOA when the EU was unable to muster sufficient political will and clout to ensure its survival. Assuming the deal is restored, a major test of European strategic autonomy would be its ability to deliver economic dividends to Iran, independent of the electoral cycles in the US.

Furthermore, the JCPOA should not be seen as a one-off deal, but rather embedded in a broader strategy of engagement with Iran. Elements of such a broader strategy were envisaged in the 2016 joint statement by the then-high representative for EU foreign policy, Federica Mogherini, and Iran’s former foreign minister, Javad Zarif. Although much in the world and region has changed since, there are aspects of that communication that are even more valid today.

For instance, Russian aggression in Ukraine made the diversification of energy supplies a critical issue for the future of the European economy and way of life. Iran, with its abundant oil and gas reserves, could certainly become an actor in efforts to wean Europe off its excessive dependence on the Russian hydrocarbons. A renewed relationship would also provide a platform to discuss other issues in the region, such as building on recent de-escalation moves between Saudi Arabia and Iran, or addressing the human rights situation.

The experience shows that any attempt at long-term engagement with Iran is fraught with political complexities. Too often such efforts were scuttled by recalcitrant domestic actors in the US, Iran and some of its Middle Eastern neighbours. The Russian aggression in Ukraine, however, has proved that European strategic autonomy, understood as the EU’s ability to make independent political choices and back them up with action, is no longer a luxury, but a necessity. Building a functional relationship with a key Middle Eastern state like Iran is certainly part of filling it with substance.

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the S&D Group and the European Parliament.

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