European leverage over Iran’s elite and wider society has significantly declined in the past year. This is largely due to Europe’s inability to influence US President Donald Trump or act independently of the United States’ “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. European countries failed not only to persuade Trump to stick to the Iran nuclear agreement, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), but also to push back against draconian US sanctions and thereby pursue their stated goals. Due to these factors, most Iranians see Europe as a weakened global player that can neither incentivise nor penalise Iran in a meaningful way.
When the US withdrew from the JCPOA, Iranians looked to Europe to save the agreement. After a year of patience, many in Tehran gave up on Europe. This is a notable shift for the Iranian government – which, throughout the Islamic Republic’s 40-year history, has perceived European capitals as a moderating influence on US policy on Iran and advocates of stability in the Middle East.
In the decades that followed the Iranian Revolution, which precipitated a severe breakdown in US-Iranian relations, Tehran often looked to European governments to mitigate Washington’s sanctions and containment policy. For Tehran, positive relations with Europe were critical to maintaining access to the European Union’s markets and preventing the political isolation of Iran that successive US administrations pursued. Following the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, Europe was widely perceived to have helped steer the US and Israel away from military confrontation with Iran.
More recently, debate in Tehran has linked the EU’s global role to the fate of the JCPOA. The EU was central to the negotiations that produced the agreement, having paved the way for US-Iran talks on nuclear issues. Indeed, Tehran insisted on a multilateral setting for the JCPOA negotiations because it mistrusted Washington. Iran hoped that other parties, including Europe, could balance the American position.
In a Trumpian world, however, Europe has lost much of its charm for Tehran. Trade between Europe and Iran has drastically fallen. Neither the EU nor its most powerful member states have been able – or even willing – to counter US secondary sanctions on Iran.
Many within the political leadership in Tehran have concluded that the EU is unable to fulfil its JCPOA commitments due to its unwillingness to resist the US sanctions framework. For example, Europe has taken a long time to operationalise its special purpose vehicle for trade with Iran, the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX). Moreover, the EU limited the scope of INSTEX trade to humanitarian goods – despite Iran’s initial expectation that the mechanism would also cover oil exports. While the EU is still figuring out how to use INSTEX to facilitate non-sanctioned trade with Iran, China has defied US sanctions to do business with Iran, promising that it will continue to strengthen Sino-Iranian ties.
Earlier this year, a summer of negotiations with French President Emmanuel Macron also dashed the hopes of the Iranian government. Iran imagined that Macron, with his relatively strong links to Trump, could persuade the US to ease its sanctions and accept a French initiative to provide Iran with a $15 billion credit line. Yet there has been little progress on this proposal since the UN General Assembly, in September, where there was a glimmer of hope that a political breakthrough could take place. The resulting disappointment led many Iranians to conclude that the Rouhani government had exaggerated Europe’s ability to change US calculations on Iran.
Despite its disappointment with Europe’s capabilities, Iran would still like to hedge its bets on the JCPOA. Iranian leaders believe that, provided it gains the requisite political will, Europe could provide political support to the agreement that would be helpful in forcing the US to rethink its strategy, under Trump or a future president. Nonetheless, according to Iranian officials, Iran will not be the only party to foot the bill for preserving the JCPOA. If the JCPOA does eventually collapse, Iran will not view the return of EU sanctions as a significant threat to its economy given that they will have far less impact than unilateral US measures.
Tehran is aware that its policy of escalation on the nuclear deal and growing tensions in the Middle East will strain its relationship with Europe. Iran increasingly views the United Kingdom as having joined the US maximum pressure campaign. The UK’s seizure of an Iranian supertanker in Gibraltar in July, and Iran’s retaliatory capture of a British-flagged oil tanker, created friction in Europe-Iran relations. A statement from the E3 (France, Germany, and the UK) condemning Iran for attacks on Saudi Arabian oil facilities in September also irritated Tehran. These incidents have damaged European influence on Tehran: the more Iran views Europe as a follower of US policy, the less credibility Europeans have with the Iranian political leadership.
More broadly, Tehran is hugely sceptical of European influence in the Middle East. After the JCPOA was signed, Tehran initially thought it would be useful to partner with the EU in stabilisation efforts in the Middle East – particularly in areas affected by the fight against the Islamic State group. Tehran hoped that Europe could pull together relevant Middle Eastern and international players to find diplomatic solutions to contentious problems – as it had in creating a platform for dialogue on the nuclear issue.
Additionally, Tehran thought that partnership with the EU and its member states would legitimise an Iranian role in political talks on regional issues, from which the US had long excluded Iran. As such, Tehran agreed to begin a series of discussions with the EU and the E4 (the E3 plus Italy) that, despite growing pressure on the JCPOA, resulted in some limited progress in the Yemen conflict. But Iran’s appetite for engagement with the EU on regional issues has rapidly declined since then. Tehran believes that the EU has shown an unwillingness – or, worse, an inability – to manage its relations with competing Middle Eastern players. It also believes that, without active US pressure on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, it is unlikely that any European political discussions on regional issues can make meaningful progress.
Broadly, Iran now hopes to balance the US maximum pressure campaign by siding with non-Western powers such as Russia and China. Here, the decline in Europe’s global influence and independence minimises Iran’s desire to cooperate with the EU. The EU’s political leverage in Tehran has likely never been weaker.