Two years have passed since Ebrahim Raisi became Iran’s president, and his foreign policy has centered on a fierce anti-Western animus while simultaneously forging a supposedly strategic partnership with China and Russia. This partnership, critics argue, has been unreciprocated. As a result of an inflexible overseas agenda, relations with the European Union have taken a sharp downturn.
After JCPOA Withdrawal
Although Iran’s relationship with Europe hasn’t been predominantly cordial since the 1979 revolution, there were periods of collaboration when the two sides committed themselves to synergy, overcoming a legacy of cynicism and alienation. The time between the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in July 2015 and the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal in May 2018 marked the halcyon days of Iran-EU cooperation, when rare openings in the relations signaled a potential for long-term harmony.
Even after the former U.S. president walked away from the JCPOA, the European Union set out to maintain a working relationship with Tehran, undeterred by the newly-imposed, stringent extraterritorial sanctions that the U.S. had put in place. Despite Tehran authorities’ complaints, modest volumes of trade, academic and cultural exchanges, and diplomatic communication continued.
These slivers of commercial activity didn’t resemble the windfall of regular trade that the nuclear deal was supposed to generate, and relations didn’t mature as envisioned. Faced with a president in the White House who was prepared to go the extra mile to coerce every country into ceasing business with Iran, the Europeans struggled to find a balance between the United States—an indispensable economic, political, and security ally—and the Islamic Republic, a former outcast they had promised to reintegrate into the club of nations.
Regardless of Trump’s decision to pull the plug on the JCPOA, an anomaly in what had begun to gather momentum as a promising order of Iran-West understanding, the administration of President Hassan Rouhani in Iran was resolved to fast-track connections with the EU. As a rule of thumb, the government in Tehran was previously focused on maintaining relations with a confined set of countries that were its ideological allies. Against that backdrop, Rouhani was working diligently to expand the sphere of Iran’s friends.
Growing Relations with Europe
Some of the developments in the course of Iran-EU relations were transformative by the Islamic Republic standards. For the first time since 1979, European leaders such as Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, Finnish President Sauli Niinistö and Slovenian President Borut Pahor traveled to Iran.
No head of state or government from these nations had set foot in Iran following the Islamic revolution. Even Viktor Orbán of Hungary, whose aversion to the Muslim world is public knowledge, visited Tehran in December 2015 at the helm of a delegation of officials and businessmen to mark “the start of a new era between the two countries.” His government didn’t want to miss out on the unique opportunity of profitable trade with a market of 85 million unleashed by the nuclear deal.
Outside the European Union, Swiss President Johann Schneider-Ammann, Serbian President Tomislav Nikolić and Moldovan President Igor Dodon were some of the European leaders whose trips to Iran were described as historic, unprecedented in the past four decades. The new trajectory of the Iranian government was, as instructed by Rouhani, “constructive engagement,” and the West was conscious of the emerging reality, willing to embrace it.
In 2017, the value of Iran-EU trade amounted to €21 billion, recording a 53-percent increase from the previous year. That year, Iran became the 49th destination of Germany’s exports, overtaking G20 members Argentina and Indonesia as an import partner of Europe’s largest economy. Italy, Iran’s primary trade partner in the bloc of 27 nations, imported record levels of crude oil from Iran, averaging 186,000 barrels per day, when the Persian Gulf nation became its top crude supplier after Azerbaijan.
Aside from multi-billion dollar deals with European firms that were poised to plow money and invest technology in renovating various sectors of the Iranian economy, ranging from the vaunted contract with Airbus for 118 brand-new aircraft to Meliá Hotels International and Accor pledging to construct several high-end resorts across the country, red carpet was also rolled for top European diplomats.
With two British foreign secretaries Philip Hammond and Boris Johnson visiting Tehran in a span of two years, returned by foreign minister Javad Zarif’s rare trip to London in February 2016, the historical stigma that shrouded Britain’s presence in Iran was negated and the two nations were able to assert a mutual interest in reinforcing ties more unapologetically.
Hassan Rouhani met David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson as prime ministers on several occasions, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, and although he didn’t nod to accept Johnson’s invitation to confer with him in London, a modus vivendi was worked out that allowed different realms of cooperation to thrive. For one thing, academic ties that appeared to be frozen for some time were untethered, and as of 2022, a total of 2,325 Iranian students have been enrolled in different programs of study at UK universities.
Rouhani visited four European capitals, and even though his westward charm offensive was cannibalized by Trump’s JCPOA pullout, he had still inducted a novel discourse in Iran’s foreign relations, diversifying partners away from major European countries. From Bulgaria to Sweden to Norway, trade and diplomacy was picking up with countries that had rarely been offered an outstretched hand by the revolutionary Iran, and a curious yet cautious Europe was accommodating a new teammate.
A Hardliner in Power
Rouhani’s departure in 2021 was constitutionally inevitable, but the economic and foreign policy complexities that followed were not supposed to be preordained, other than the fact that his successor, Ebrahim Raisi, decided to unveil an extreme face of the Islamic Republic. The ensuing fallout with Europe was only one upshot of this new turn of governance that took not only Europeans, but Iranians at home, off-guard.
Since his inauguration in August 2021, Raisi has not been to any European country, not even two of Iran’s EU-affiliated neighbors, Turkey and Azerbaijan. Beyond Alexander Lukashenko, no European leader has paid him a visit in Tehran, and there appears to be scant probability of this disengagement tendency being reversed in the next two years of his presidency.
Raisi’s engagement with European leaders is limited to a one face-to-face meeting with the French President Emmanuel Macron on the sidelines of UNGA meeting in New York in September 2022. This meeting was followed by several phone conversations. Macron, ever optimistic amidst the prolonged obscurity of Iran-EU discord, perceives a flicker of promise within the impasse. He continues to believe in the revival of the dormant nuclear accord, a sentiment that fuels his determination.
Macron has urged Raisi to intensify his efforts to give a new lease of life to the JCPOA, but those calls have fallen on deaf ears: for partisan and ideological reasons, Raisi seems unenthused about the prospect of circling back to what was the signature diplomatic achievement of his domestic rivals. He, too, lacks an alternative; however, in keeping with his stance, prioritizing collaboration with Europe is not a pursuit that would bring him contentment.
Currently, Iran’s interaction with Europe is poised to remain restricted, while Europe, in turn, will approach dealings with Raisi’s government with heightened caution. This is due in part to Iran’s provision of military assistance to Russia in its invasion of Ukraine. While Europe navigates a wide range of options to bolster Ukraine’s defense in a reputational war that is already shifting the dynamics of global order, Iran’s homage to Vladimir Putin and its generous military support for Russia, including thousands of suicide drones supplied so far that are used against civilian targets in Ukraine is not something that the West will agree to condone. Engagement will remain at a minimum, trade is unlikely to bloom, and cultural exchanges, not just with the trio of Britain, Germany and France, but the more friendly countries of Eastern Europe have been put on the back burner. Rather than anticipating an immediate breakthrough, observers are primarily concerned with preventing the existing gaps from devolving into escalations. The best scenario for an administration that relies on its anti-Western zeal as a trump card rather than a liability is to complete its term without having triggered a conflagration. The expectation of making headway is just not realistic.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.