The EU and Iran after Rouhani: towards a Minimalistic Relationship?

For better or worse, Iran remains a pivotal country in the Middle East. The EU will therefore need to judge the next Iranian government on its own merits and devise a realistic strategy focused on European core interests.

Image: Mamedov

Eldar Mamedov



When the nuclear agreement between the world powers and Iran, known as the JCPOA, was concluded in 2015, the then-EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini hoped that it would prove to be a foundation, not a ceiling, for EU-Iran relations. In April 2016 the joint statement by Mogherini and Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif set out an ambitious agenda in that direction, ranging from trade to people-to-people and educational exchanges.

But the maximum pressure applied against Iran by the Trump administration and the EU’s unwillingness or inability to assert its strategic autonomy in the face of it shelved those plans. With the Democrats back in the White House and prospects for a restoration of the JCPOA improving, this could be an opportunity to revive that agenda.

Now, however, EU-Iran relations are about to hit another wall, this time on the Iranian side. After the Guardians Council purged almost all of the moderate and reformist candidates for the upcoming presidential elections in June 2021, the EU is bracing for the prospect of a conservative becoming the president of Iran. The frontrunner is the current chief of the judiciary, Ebrahim Raisi.

Representatives of the conservative camp in Iran are traditionally more skeptical of engagement with the “West”, particularly the people-to-people and cultural aspects of it, which they see as a means for the West to infiltrate and erode the Islamic Republic. The rise of someone like Raisi – who carries the heavy burden of past involvement in mass human rights violations, such as the massacre of political prisoners in 1988 – would mean that the EU would pay reputational and transactional costs for dealing with the presumptive next administration. The stage is being set for a rather minimalistic phase in EU-Iran relations.

The EU has partly itself to blame for arriving at this situation. To be clear, the main responsibility lies with the undemocratic nature of the Iranian system. The Rouhani administration’s efforts at social and economic reform were consistently thwarted by the Islamic Republic’s “deep state”. The Guardians Council elevated that sabotage to the next level by eliminating any plausible reformist challenge in the presidential elections.

The next culprit is the Trump administration which, by violating the JCPOA and instituting its maximum pressure campaign, severely weakened Iranian advocates of a rapprochement with the West and reform at home. Then there are the mistakes and mismanagement of the Rouhani administration itself, which was often seen as aloof and ineffective, particularly by Iranians of modest means. It was also tainted by the severe repression of economic protests in Iran in 2017-2019.

Yet the European side must bear some responsibility. The EU/E3 (Britain, France, Germany) discredited the notion of Europe as a viable Western option for Iran by failing to effectively stand up to Trump’s policies. The special purpose vehicle “INSTEX”, designed to circumvent the extraterritorial U.S. sanctions, never really got off the ground. The EU thus proved unable to deliver to Iran the economic benefits Tehran had supposedly secured as a result of the JCPOA. Worse, the E3 occasionally seemed to blame Iran (more than the US) for the downfall of the JCPOA. Equally unfortunate were one-sided accusations that Iran was playing a destabilizing regional role – Britain and France enjoy close ties with other problematic actors in the region, like Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE), and their arms sales to these monarchies are burgeoning. All of this has further reduced Iranian moderates’ room for maneuver.

Iran, however, will remain a pivotal country in the Middle East. Its policies will continue to shape a range of conflicts in the region, with security implications for the EU, for example in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. They will also affect stability in the Persian Gulf and nuclear proliferation. The EU will have to deal with Iran irrespective of who is in charge of the country. Hence, it will have to judge the incoming administration in Tehran on its own merits and devise a realistic strategy that focuses on EU’s core interests.

First among those interests is a revival of the JCPOA, which should achieve the non-proliferation objectives in exchange for sanctions relief for Iran. There is a reasonable chance that the ongoing negotiations in Vienna will reach a mutually satisfactory outcome. As far as Iran is concerned, the decision to restore the JCPOA is taken by the “system” (nezam) and endorsed by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Thus, at the strategic level, it is linked neither to the Rouhani government nor to the upcoming election. Notwithstanding potentially different tactical approaches, the main interest shared across the establishment is to get the sanctions lifted: not only because they hamper the Iranian economy per se but also because they stand in the way of the regional business interests of key stakeholders, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guardians Corps (IRGC). Also, for all the talk in Tehran about “strategic partnerships” with Russia and China, both Moscow and Beijing also insist on compliance with the JCPOA.

The nezam would not mind seeing the diplomatically and technically competent Zarif team finalize the negotiations so that the incoming conservative government could reap the benefits of a deal and claim credit for the improvement of Iran’s economic situation – at the expense of their centrist-reformist opponents. The EU should continue playing its facilitating role in restoring the JCPOA, even if doing so could help strengthen the forces in Tehran that are less amenable to broader engagement than is the outgoing Rouhani administration.

Second is the promotion of regional de-escalation in the Persian Gulf and Middle East. With Washington taking a step back from its unconditional embrace of Riyadh, and Iran-supported Houthi rebels enjoying battlefield successes against the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, discreet Saudi-Iranian talks have already taken place in Baghdad. With the advent of a Raisi administration, more talks between Iran and its regional rivals Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE) are likely to follow. The fact that a Raisi foreign policy team would presumably be more aligned with the preferences of the deeper security establishment, including the IRGC, should facilitate such talks. A Raisi victory would eliminate whatever daylight existed between the diplomacy and the “military field” that Zarif alluded to in his leaked interview. The fact that the talks with the Saudis are led not by the foreign minister but by Ismail Ghaani, the chief of the Quds Force of the IRGC, suggests that any eventual deal that also takes the legitimate security interests of Saudi Arabia into account has a better chance of being implemented by the Iranian side.

During the Rouhani years, Saudi and Emirati diplomats often dismissed the president and Zarif as merely a smiling façade of a regime where the “real decisions” were taken by the hardliners in the security apparatus and the supreme leader’s office. Such an excuse for rejecting dialogue, never entirely credible, will carry even less weight with a Raisi administration in place. The EU should vigorously support regional de-escalation efforts.

However, the EU should be clear-eyed that the Iranian missiles and proxies in the region are not up for discussion as long as Tehran sees them as indispensable deterrents. There will be continuity with the outgoing government on this. That said, the conservatives might be better placed to come to some understandings in the region, such as limiting the range of the missiles, in exchange for reciprocal steps from, chiefly, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. The overall lowering of tensions would enhance security in the Strait of Hormuz, a global shipping route where some EU nations, led by France, have deployed a maritime surveillance mission. De-escalation might also have positive ripple effects in other scenarios relevant for the EU security, such as Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon.

The third core interest of the EU is the promotion of human rights in Iran. This has normative and practical implications: there are still a number of dual European-Iranian nationals languishing in Iranian prisons on trumped-up charges.

Given the background of Ebrahim Raisi, human rights might seem the most challenging area for engagement. However, paradoxically, the fact that he hails from the conservative camp might enable him to take steps unavailable to more moderately inclined politicians. Much of the mischief in the latest years, such as imprisoning of dual nationals, was carried out by conservatives in the judiciary and security apparatus who aimed to embarrass their moderate opponents and sabotage their outreach to the West. With the presidency in conservative hands, such an incentive for wreaking havoc would be removed. It would also enable direct negotiations with those decision-makers in Tehran who have largely been out of reach during the Rouhani’s tenure in office, very much to the frustration of European diplomats.

It is also worth keeping in mind that, whatever Raisi’s reprehensible past, the political environment in Iran has changed from the revolutionary zeal of the 1980s. He himself found it necessary to at least appear to oppose the Guardians Council’s decision to clear the way for his victory by excluding plausible reformist candidates. Besides, the history of Iranian civic activism by no means suggests that his election will be meekly accepted as the end of the struggle for the expansion of civil rights and political participation.

Indeed, Raisi sees the presidency as a stepping stone for his ultimate rise to succeed Khamenei, so he might have an incentive to boost his legitimacy by appealing to a broader segment of the society than just his core supporters. Although extreme skepticism should be the default position of the EU, it should not preclude attempts to engage. Intensifying talks on the release of dual nationals imprisoned in Iran would be a good place to start.

The prospect that the conservatives could capture the one major institution of the state – the presidency – that was hitherto not in their hands is a discouraging one for the EU. However, Brussels and other European capitals should keep open the channels of communication with Tehran, right-size their expectations, and focus on their core interests. In the long run, this could provide the basis for broader re-engagement once the political conditions in Iran swing back to more openness. While preparing for the future, however, it is also useful to bear in mind that the Iranian elections have a long record of producing surprises. Raisi’s victory, although probable, is not a done deal yet.



Eldar Mamedov is a political adviser for the social-democrats in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament (EP) and is in charge of the EP delegations for inter-parliamentary relations with Iran, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, and Mashreq. Prior to this, he worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia and as a diplomat in Latvian embassies in Washington D.C. and Madrid. He holds degrees from the University of Latvia and the Diplomatic School in Madrid, Spain.

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

On Twitter: @EldarMamedov4



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