Europe’s attempt to court Iran not a safe bet
Ebrahim Raisi’s victory in last month’s Iranian presidential election raises concerns about the likelihood of a more hawkish policy toward Europe, rather than the openness the continent had come to expect under outgoing President Hassan Rouhani. These concerns were heightened by Raisi’s first public address after his election win, in which he harshly criticized Rouhani’s policy of rapprochement with the West. Raisi reiterated that he puts no faith in reconciliation with the West to resolve Iran’s political and economic problems, emphasizing ominously that Iran’s ballistic missile program is non-negotiable. His incendiary comments appear to be diametrically opposed to the European countries’ preference for dialogue and engagement to maintain their interests.
The US withdrawal from the nuclear deal in May 2018 was a test for European-Iranian relations, with the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” strategy obstructing Europe’s efforts to attain its goal vis-a-vis Iran. Europe’s stance of strategic autonomy was diminished, especially in the context of trade with Iran, after it appeared unable to protect its partners and economic interests in the face of US sanctions. This meant that it lost its influence with the leadership in Tehran, as well as facing unprecedented pressure from the Trump administration. This may have been the motivation behind the European parties’ drive to “invest their political capital” in preserving the 2015 nuclear deal and obstructing the Trump administration’s plan to reinstate international sanctions, thwarting the creation of a global consensus against Iran.
When Trump departed the White House and the Biden administration took over, the European countries increased their pressure to revive the nuclear deal. Europe’s strategy is primarily based on prioritizing the strategic importance of the nuclear deal, which it views as an effective blueprint to address nuclear proliferation issues and safeguard European security amid threats arising from the Middle East.
On the economic front, the nuclear deal enables Europe to restore its position as Iran’s most important trading partner. The deal is also seen by Europe as a stepping stone toward holding bilateral dialogue and follow-up negotiations on an array of outstanding issues, including Iran’s ballistic missiles program, its destabilizing role in the region and its human rights violations. Finally, the nuclear deal is also seen as a way to bring Tehran into closer alignment with the West, rather than pursuing its customary policy of focusing on forming eastward alliances with Russia and China, Europe’s historic rivals.
Accordingly, Europe acted as an intermediary to start negotiations over reviving the nuclear deal, feeling that it holds the key to a successful outcome, with the latest round of talks beginning in Vienna in April. After seven rounds of negotiations, a near-final draft has been reached, theoretically ensuring that each party will return to honoring its nuclear commitments. The US has already started to lift some of the sanctions imposed on Iran. So far, however, Western pressure has failed to ensure the inclusion in the nuclear deal of any of the other outstanding issues, such as Iran’s ballistic missile program or its malign regional influence.
The problem is that, while Europe has given Iran a tremendous opportunity to end its isolation and fix its economy by reviving the nuclear deal without reaching any definitive settlement on the outstanding issues — deferring discussions to the follow-on negotiations, a repetition of the exact same mistake made in 2015 — all of Europe’s interests now seem to be at risk. The ultraconservative cleric Raisi has now been appointed to the presidency via a blatantly rigged election, which was devoid of any powerful rivals, as part of a strategy carefully devised by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the Guardian Council.
The importance of appointing Raisi as president cannot be overstated, since he is widely considered to be Khamenei’s potential successor. He has a deep, unshakable belief in the principles of the so-called Islamic revolution of 1979 and a zealous commitment to following the line drawn by Supreme Leaders Ayatollah Khomeini and Khamenei.
From the regime’s viewpoint, Raisi is the best custodian to ensure the future of the regime and implement Khamenei’s foreign policy priorities at this crucial and delicate juncture.
All this means that Europe’s hopes of weakening the conservatives’ grip on Iranian decision-making by pursuing a policy of openness with Tehran is nothing but a fantasy. The West’s lack of close familiarity with the Iranian regime’s domestic policy dynamics means that it still fails to understand the supreme leader’s absolute control over the main actors in the Iranian political landscape, regardless of whether the president is nominally reformist or conservative. These two factions are, in reality, two sides of the same coin and perform functional roles to serve the regime. Thus, it seems likely that Iran is maneuvering, during the current phase, by adopting a superficial appearance of openness and forming an understanding with Europe to pave the way for a smooth transfer of power while upholding the regime’s existing power structure.
In addition, Raisi is entrusted with protecting Iran’s foreign policy principles — the most important of which are hostility toward the West and the rejection of Western hegemony, sovereignty, self-sufficiency and nationalism. This means that Raisi will reject any move to restrict the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ powers in regard to expanding Iran’s foreign influence. He also will not constrain its subversive role in the European arena or cease the development of Iran’s ballistic missile program, which is categorized by the regime as an essential defensive element.
Europe’s strategy is primarily based on prioritizing the strategic importance of the nuclear deal.
Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami
Raisi will also open the floodgates to a further strengthening of Iran’s relations with Russia and China to strike a balance in its relations with the US and Europe. And, more importantly, Raisi will take advantage of the nuclear deal’s revival to make economic gains to further strengthen the power of the conservatives, thus helping them restore their eroding legitimacy. This outcome is diametrically opposed to what Europe intends via reviving the nuclear deal and pursuing a policy of dialogue and partnership with Iran.
Ultimately, Europe’s attempt to increase the scope of its influence in Iran and across the entire Middle East outside of the US orbit, as part of the ongoing global “rebalancing” and as part of its pursuit of greater autonomy, is an unsafe bet. This aim cannot be achieved on the ground in light of the Iranian regime’s lack of confidence in Europe and of the possibility of it acting independently of the US, especially once Raisi becomes president. However, European companies have had negative experiences of dealing with the Iranian regime, both before and since the nuclear deal was struck. Thus, Europe’s relations with Iran will continue to be inextricably tied to the trajectory of Iranian-American relations and any European return to Iran will primarily focus on the commercial dimension, rather than any investment-related aspects.
- Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is President of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami