No Illusions – Relations with Iran Remain Difficult

Regardless of who becomes its next president, Iran needs to shift its stance. Europe has a crucial role to play in the negotiations – and not just those on the nuclear agreement.

Image: Schmid

Nils Schmid



Iran will once again take center stage in our foreign policy when a new president is elected on June 18th. As Hassan Rouhani is not permitted to stand again, having already served two terms in office, a change is on the cards, at least in terms of the figure steering Iran’s executive branch.

Although the president has only limited scope to determine the fundamental thrust of Iran’s foreign and security policy, he does exert considerable influence on the course pursued in relations with the West. This was demonstrated, for example, by the gap between the policy approaches adopted by the moderate conservative Rouhani and his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as well as by the different ways the West perceived these strategies.

Currently, however, we are not only looking to Tehran, Mashhad, or Isfahan and wondering which box Iranians will check on their ballot papers. We are also observing with great curiosity developments that are unfolding far from Iran, in Vienna, where diplomats are thrashing out the future of the nuclear agreement.

The nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was a success story of European diplomacy. It was signed in 2015 by Iran and the E3/EU+3. i.e., by three European states – France, Great Britain, Germany – plus the European Union, as well as by China, Russia, and the United States. One cornerstone was laid in 2003, under Germany’s SPD-Green coalition government, when the German foreign minister invested a great deal of political capital in a trip to Tehran, where, along with his British and French counterparts, he sought to resolve by political means the dangerous conflict over Iran’s nuclear program. These efforts would ultimately bear fruit only after a twelve-year diplomatic marathon that led to the conclusion of the JCPOA in Vienna.

The JCPOA is not perfect. It contains certain restrictions that are to be phased out after a few years. It does not cover Iran’s ballistic missile program, nor does it prevent the country from pursuing an aggressive foreign policy. That, of course, was apparent to those involved in 2015. However, it remains clear, from today’s perspective too, that signing up for this deal was the right thing to do. That is because the agreement achieved the most important goal: it prevented Iran from developing nuclear weapons, a step that would have triggered a nuclear arms race in the Middle East – with potentially catastrophic consequences that no one is keen to imagine.

In addition, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna established a rigorous monitoring regime for independent oversight of Iran’s adherence to its commitments. In its regular reports, the IAEA certified that Iran was complying with the provisions stipulated in the deal. In return, Tehran was assured of sanctions relief, which was expected to benefit Iran’s economy and population. When I traveled to the country in my role as Baden-Württemberg’s minister of economic affairs and finance shortly after the JCPOA was signed, everything pointed to a new beginning and greater openness. All of the talks I had were tinged with a sense of hope for an improved economic situation and rapprochement with the West.

There was, therefore, great disappointment and incomprehension – both in Iran and among the other signatory states – when President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the JCPOA. By changing US policy to one of “maximum pressure”, Trump attempted to single-handedly bulldoze the Iranian regime into submission and to that end persistently escalated US sanctions policy.

The E3 attempted to allow legal trade between Europe and Iran to continue, devising creative and audacious solutions such as the INSTEX special purpose vehicle that was established in 2019. Unfortunately, these efforts were merely a symbolic success. That is because pressure from extraterritorial US sanctions also caused European trade with Iran to plummet. Inflation in Iran has skyrocketed, the economy is now in ruins, and unemployment is high, especially among young people – and this difficult situation was exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic that has been ravaging the country for over a year now.

Trump’s Iran policy served as a wake-up call for us in Europe, expediting a process of emancipation leading to greater European sovereignty. One lesson learnt in the process is that we need to add powerful tools to our arsenal as a defense against coercive geo-economic measures. Current debates on establishing a European Export Bank, making use of the updated blocking statute (to protect EU operators from extra-territorial application of third-country laws), and introducing an EU anti-coercion mechanism are therefore particularly important. While the wind from Washington has turned, it is impossible to rule out a “Trump reloaded” scenario in four years’ time.

However, the US withdrawal also constituted a grave setback for global disarmament efforts. The Trump administration sent a devastating signal around the globe: on the one hand, the US president punished the Iranian regime with the utmost severity, even though it had complied with the JCPOA and verifiably refrained from pursuing atomic weaponry. On the other hand, the US rewarded North Korea’s dictator, who does have the atomic bomb, by organizing summit meetings without any quid pro quo at all.

That makes it all the more significant that we now once again have a reliable partner at our side in the form of Joe Biden, who is committed to diplomacy and arms control. “Build Back Better”, a Biden slogan, should also become the current motto for rebuilding the international arms control system, which has been smashed to smithereens by four years of Trump. Following the extension of the New Start treaty, the United States’ return to the JCPOA is now on the agenda and the US administration has signaled serious intent to take the requisite steps.

It is crucial now that Iran shift its stance too. All the signatory states must work toward this goal, particularly China and Russia. The regime in Tehran has opted for a risky course and is playing with fire. By ramping up uranium enrichment and disregarding other JCPOA obligations, Iran is seriously jeopardizing the agreement’s survival. Iran must return to full compliance with the JCPOA. 

However, our conflict with Iran extends far beyond the nuclear issue. In addition to the ballistic missile program, which poses a threat for neighboring countries and beyond, the difficulty arises above all from Iran’s aggressive regional policy, which includes support for terrorist organizations and armed militias in countries such as Syria, Iraq, or Yemen.

The E3, now once again assuming the role of honest broker in the Vienna nuclear negotiations, should also play a decisive role in the requisite negotiations on issues beyond the original nuclear agreement. However, a long-term easing of tensions in the region will only be possible if an agreement is reached between the two hegemonic powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia. We therefore welcome the cautious rapprochement between Tehran and Riyadh, where a rethink has been sparked by the reorientation of US policy under Biden. Reaching a consensus on the Yemen conflict, which has triggered the worst humanitarian crisis of our times, would be an important first step. In the long term it will be vital to create a regional security architecture that builds on such islands of cooperation – even if an agreement on that front appears a rather unrealistic prospect at present.

It is Iranians who have paid the price for developments in recent years, for their lives have become more difficult – not only due to the draconian US sanctions policy, but primarily because of the powers that be in Tehran. In 2019, when Iranians’ rage towards the system, rampant corruption, state mismanagement, and international isolation spilled over into the streets, the regime quashed the mass protests with great bloodshed. Thousands were injured and hundreds killed.

No one should harbor illusions about the nature of the Iranian regime: even under the supposedly moderate Rouhani, human rights have been trampled underfoot, arbitrary arrests and torture have been rife, and minors and homosexuals have been executed.

Irrespective of the outcome of the elections and the Vienna negotiations, the regime in Tehran must be made aware that we will continue to express frank criticism of human rights violations and will adopt sanctions against those responsible, for example via the new EU human rights sanctions mechanism. Our attention is also focused in particular on the situation for dual nationals subjected to politically motivated detention. We demand their immediate release.



Dr Nils Schmid is a Member of the Bundestag and Spokesperson on Foreign Affairs for the SPD Parliamentary Group in the Bundestag.

On Twitter: @NilsSchmid




About the blog

Our blog aims to host a diverse, multi-faceted debate on the Iranian presidential elections on June 18. To this end, it highlights aspects that are important to Iranians in the context of the vote as well as fundamental issues like the question of the importance of elections in an autocratic system. We also consider the perspectives of selected regional actors.


David Jalilvand is an Analyst, running the Berlin-based research consultancy  Orient Matters

Achim Vogt heads the FES project Peace and Security in the MENA-Region.




Achim Vogt

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