Iran’s relations with European governments in general—and particularly with the troika of France, Britain, and Germany—deteriorated into open hostility over the past year under hardline president Ebrahim Raisi. It is not an exaggeration to say that current tensions, which impact cooperation in all sectors, are unprecedented since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that unseated the monarchy to bring the anti-Western clergy to power.
In the aftermath of then-U.S. President Donald Trump’s 2018 exit from the historic 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the EU big three sought in vain up until mid-2022 to restore the deal, officially termed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The EU’s efforts foundered in the face of Tehran’s new position in the nuclear talks, its implicit support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and above all, Iran’s supply of deadly drones to Russia to be used in strikes on Ukraine. Although the Islamic Republic officially adopted a neutral stance, pro-regime media, and unofficial organs show sympathy for Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine. Additionally, signs of improvement in Iran-Russia ties and revelations about Iran arming Russia confirmed Iran’s support of Russia. In parallel, the outbreak of nationwide protests immediately after the death of the young Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini in police custody, followed by the regime’s crackdown, sparked global condemnation, which led the EU big three, and Europe in general, to take a tougher stance against Iran.
The European governments so far tried a variety of tools ranging from imposing human rights sanctions to the tougher application of already-crippling sanctions and openly supporting anti-regime groups to force Iran to reconsider its ambitious nuclear program and regional and foreign policy, especially its military cooperation with Russia following its invasion of Ukraine. Under the pretext of human rights violations, the EU adopted many rounds of sanctions targeting Iranian officials and institutions, including government ministers, senior clerics, and military and police commanders since September. The latest round of sanctions was adopted in late May targeting Iranian officials and entities with links to the influential Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
Amid these sanctions, Iran has not sat idle. Reciprocally, it approved measures and sanctions targeting an open-ended list of European politicians, institutions, and think tanks, as well as the suspension of French and German cultural and academic centers in Tehran. Furthermore, by detaining European nationals or dual nationals and hanging dual nationals regardless of the Europeans’ requests for a reprieve, Iran refuses to appease Europe. Graffiti linked to pro-regime vigilantes also emerged on the walls of British, French, and German diplomatic missions, expressing Tehran’s opposition to European foreign policy, further degrading relations.
However, pragmatic politicians and diplomats, although suppressed by hardliners, do not remain indifferent. These politicians and diplomats consistently warned against the “worrying consequences” of Tehran’s reluctance to pursue reconciliation with Western nations, cautioning against the alarming implications of Iran’s military assistance to Russia in the Ukrainian conflict and criticizing Iran’s “misguided policies and actions”. In their view, the reckless actions of Iran’s ruling faction have diminished the rift between Europe and the United States due to Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA, resulting in Europe adopting an even more stringent stance on Tehran than President Joe Biden’s administration.
No Policy Change on the Horizon
Although European foreign ministers and diplomats, including those from Belgium and France, have met with Iranian officials in recent months to discuss security issues and the exchange of prisoners with Tehran, no sign of détente is in sight. The Iranian regime is unlikely to make any tangible policy change regarding Europe even if the U.S. and Europe tighten their pressure on Iran over its dismal human rights record and nuclear brinkmanship.
On the strength of speeches delivered recently by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has a final say on state affairs, there are daily growing signs that the Islamic Republic will proceed with its current foreign policy as regime decision-makers are now sure of their ability to neutralize external pressure. In Khamenei’s view, the Western governments’ “plot to isolate Iran” during protests failed; instead, Tehran upgraded its ties with other regional states.
Today the regime’s official discourse is rooted in the narrative of the U.S. decline and the emergence of a new global order. To that effect, by pursuing the “Look to the East” policy, which has been prioritized as a political strategy by the Raisi administration, the Islamic Republic found a new opportunity for an alliance with two U.S. rivals, China and Russia. That explains why state and IRGC-affiliated media are teeming with ideological and exaggerated reports and analyses about Raisi’s foreign policy breakthroughs. These media claim that Iran defeated a security crisis, specifically, the protests that began in September, and managed to establish a “new era in ties based on Asianism, regionalism, and neighborism.” In a commentary, Iran’s official news agency, IRNA, fired a broadside at the Europeans, saying, “By following the wrong and bankrupt policy of sanctions, the Europeans are simply making it difficult for themselves to normalize their ties with Iran.”
The China-brokered rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia may be seen from a similar standpoint: searching for new partners. Iran’s resumption of ties with Riyadh came amid daily increasing international pressure against Iran following nationwide protests. That came against the backdrop of a lumbering economy, sliding national currency, and runaway inflation that have laid bare the regime’s inefficiency and provoked a public outcry. Although the Iran-Saudi agreement was a rare piece of good news for Iran since Trump quit the JCPOA, its impact on Iran’s economy was short-lived.
Some Iran’s analysts, among them prominent international relations expert, Mahmood Sariolghalam, believe that the agreement with Saudi Arabia was a tactic by the Iranian government to contain Riyadh’s direct and indirect financial and political role in its internal security as well as foreign-based opposition’s media campaign against the Islamic Republic. According to them, Tehran hoped to overcome internal pressure under the aegis of developing regional agreements. In the meantime, China’s pressure and financial incentives forced Iran to reconsider its regional policies, which are often described as “regionally destabilizing,” thereby losing its leverage against the West.
Amid domestic unrest and Tehran’s impression that the Europeans have over recent months indulged in extensive diplomatic consultations alongside a widespread media campaign to counter Tehran’s nuclear program and highlight human rights issues in Iran, there is reason to believe that the Islamic Republic is determined to cling to its nuclear energy. Under Chinese pressure, Iran’s regional leverage has receded. If it loses its nuclear leverage too, Tehran will no longer wield any bargaining chips against external pressure.
Iran’s foreign policy today is “chiefly based on establishing national security rather than on economic factors that often form the very core of foreign policy in most nations.” The situation on the ground indicates that Iran’s relations with the world have taken on a “security” dimension, Sariolghalam told Iranian media.
The Diminishing Influence of the EU on Iran
Hardliners in Iran have long distrusted European governments, especially the UK, France, and Germany, and have shown little interest in improving their relations. These days, Iran only depends on these countries economically less than in the past, and even some of its embassies in Europe, including the one in Britain, don’t have an ambassador. During the term of ex-President Hassan Rouhani, especially after the signing of the JCPOA, Iran, and Europe did manage to build stronger ties. However, this progress was hindered when agents linked to Iran were arrested in Europe for allegedly planning operations against opposition based abroad. Additionally, Iranian politicians and officials who advocated for better relations with Europe and the U.S. lost credibility after Trump pulled out of the JCPOA.
Meanwhile, the current administration in Iran and hardliners do not expect European investors to rush back into Iran if the JCPOA is restored. The JCPOA, once a priority for Iran in 2015, is now mainly seen as a tool to reduce foreign pressure. As a result, Iran no longer sees Europe as essential in resolving its conflict with the U.S., and hopes for improved relations between Iran and the West are dwindling. Iran sees Europe as “strategically irrelevant” due to its close ties with the U.S. Therefore, Iran is more interested in strengthening relations with non-Western countries, such as Russia. Recent actions by European powers, including the maximum pressure campaign and more robust forceful strategies, have made Iran feel more threatened, which explains its growing relationship with Russia.
Economically speaking, by resuming ties with Saudi Arabia and developing better relations with Arab neighbors, Iran sees itself as emerging out of regional isolation, while also selling oil to China. There is also an impression in Iran that the minimum budget required to run the country, roughly $40-50 billion, may be secured without the JCPOA through its current transactions with Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, China, India, and some Central Asian nations. Therefore, Iran feels no need to return to the JCPOA or sign any new agreement to accept Western nuclear curbs and lose its atomic leverage.
Despite pressure from the West to isolate Iran and keep it out of Russia’s sphere of influence, Tehran and Moscow are developing a “full-blown defense partnership.” Moreover, in return for Iranian combat drones, Russia supplied unprecedented military aid to Iran. In recent years, and more specifically after Washington’s exit from the JCPOA, Iran-Russia ties have switched from a mere entente to a strategic partnership. For the “deep state” in Tehran, closer ties with Russia are an “insurance policy” against the West. However, political ties with Russia secure the Iranian regime’s political future. Iran needs support at both a national security level and the UN Security Council. The main issue for Iran may be reliance on Russia during the supreme leadership transition period in the future. Likewise, Russia is also under tough economic and political pressure and needs allies in the face of international isolation. Therefore, based on an incentive entirely different from that of the U.S. and Europe, Russia will directly or indirectly consider Iran as an influential ally. As the war in Ukraine goes on unabated, there are few signs of any decline in military cooperation between Iran and Russia.
Under the present circumstances, unlike Iran’s China-mediated resumption of ties with Saudi Arabia under the aegis of Ayatollah Khamenei, there is no consensus on burying the hatchet with the West and Europe. Meanwhile, given the Europeans’ position on Iran’s internal issues and disagreements about Iran’s nuclear program and regional and military policies, there may be no horizon in sight for the normalization of ties between Tehran and Europe. The Islamic Republic is determined to pay a political price for its cooperation with Russia, particularly in arms supply. The logic of the Tehran-Moscow partnership lies in both nations’ efforts to neutralize the existential threats against their territorial integrity. The status quo is likely to continue unless new developments like the settlement of the Ukraine crisis or an outbreak of fresh unrest in Iran emerge. After strengthening its ties with Russia, Saudi Arabia, and others, it is crystal clear that Iran is motivated to maintain its current policies regarding the EU.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.