Written by Renee Nienhuis, edited by Angeliki

As the horrific images of injured demonstrators during the 2022 protests in Iran fade, along with the widespread support for the demonstrations and the protests themselves dissipating, the EU continues to consider ways to deal with the Iranian regime (Deutsche Welle, 2023). The focus of the EU in terms of approaching Iran has long been concerned with safety issues and economic stability (Alcaro et al., 2023). Over the years, however, this approach has shifted and the EU policy towards Iran appears to be increasingly more concerned with human rights. Where past approaches have failed or led to harmful unintended consequences, it is difficult to see when the right approach to dealing with Iran will be found. Nonetheless, as Iran is currently perceived as a security threat, the EU has to advance new and improved plans (Ghasseminejad & Taleblu, 2023).  

In trying to understand why and how the EU should improve, this article provides an overview of the perceived threat that Iran poses to the EU, a timeline of past EU approaches and their effects on Iran, and concludes with new directions that are being discussed by international policy experts.

Iran as a security threat

When the world was anxiously consumed with the events of the Cold War, an Islamic revolution took place in Iran. Rather than precisely evaluating what the adjustments of the domestic political landscape would mean, the West was engaged elsewhere (Ansari & Aarabi, 2019). Through the events of the Cold War allowing Iran to operate under the radar, Iran was able to grow into what some now believe to be a “global security threat,” with the revolution even being described to be the “legacy of terrorism” (Byman, 2019). Currently, it can be said that Iran poses a security threat to the EU in several different ways.

A first example of this is Iran’s dubious detainment of EU-Iranians. During the 2022 protests that took place after the killing of Mahsa Amini, numerous EU-Iranian nationals were detained by the Iranian authorities. These types of detainments and subsequent sentencing aren’t new but do appear to be on the rise and form a threat to the security of EU-Iranian nationals (EEAS, 2023). 

More indirect ways in which Iran poses a threat to EU security is through its engagement in proxy wars (Jones, 2019). Throughout the war that Russia wages in Ukraine, the Iranian regime has provided Russia with weapons (Ghasseminejad & Taleblu, 2023). Moreover, Iran has additionally long been accused of providing financial support to Hezbollah and other terrorist organisations, which could also be a threat through terrorist attacks in the EU (Shearer, 2022).

Another threat to EU security is related to economics. A potential strain on the EU and its oil supply is caused by Iranian threats to energy resources in the region, for example through threats of attacking oil tankers (Ghasseminejad & Taleblu, 2023). Moreover, due to the US ending the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement and the difficult renegotiations, Iran continues to be seen as a nuclear threat by defence officials (Dagres, 2023). Since the end of the JCPOA, Iran has been testing how far it can take its nuclear program. As talks of a new JCPOA were launched after the election of Biden as US president, Iran saw a chance at gaining more leverage in these negotiations through restarting its enrichment of uranium (Dagres 2023).

Hence, these several different ways in which Iran is seen to pose a threat to the EU, create the need for the EU to come up with adequate measures to protect the security of its member states. However, when looking at the history of EU policy towards Iran, it can be concluded that the EU has already had many attempts at doing so.

Timeline of EU approaches towards Iran

Marked by the end of the JCPOA deal, the EU experienced a shift in its priorities with regard to its foreign policy towards Iran (Alcaro et al., 2023). The EU, which before appeared to be mostly concerned with nuclear proliferation, is now also concerned with a more all-encompassing European security situation and with human rights in the region (Alcaro et al., 2023). Due to the change in EU priorities, the foreign policy approach towards Iran has become more confrontational.

After Iran’s secret nuclear activities were revealed in 2002, the EU has continuously aimed at finding new approaches to dealing with Iran (Pakfar, 2011, p. 1). Several different categories can be uncovered when looking at these approaches towards Iran according to a timeline from 2003 up to the present.

The approaches of the E3/EU consisted of diplomatic tracks between 2003 and 2006. When negotiations around Iran’s nuclear activities failed, the EU adopted a “dual-track” approach, which combined diplomacy with sanctions, until the JCPOA was reached in 2015 (Alcaro et al., 2023, p. 12). Around the period of Trump’s inauguration in the US, the EU focused its diplomatic efforts at defending the JCPOA  (p. 15). The next phase of diplomacy that commenced existed of the E3/EU adopting “shuttle diplomacy” (diplomacy through mediation) due to Iran’s refusal to meet with US officials (p. 16). Subsequently, a major shift took place that shapes the EU’s foreign policy towards Iran from late 2022 to the present. The EU currently sanctions Iranian officials as a result of their involvement in human rights violations and arms sales to Russia (p. 17).

Over the years, the EU has changed its approach to Iran from strictly being diplomatic towards one that includes sanctioning outside of agreements with e.g. the UN (Adebahr, 2014). Between 2007 and the present, the EU has also, increasingly introduced smart sanctions which more specifically target Iranian organisations or people (Ghodsi & Karamelikli, 2022, p. 52). This practice developed to prevent heavy impacts on the lives of ordinary Iranian people (Ghodsi & Karamelikli, 2022). The latest shifts in the EU’s approach towards Iran have thus meant the shift of a prioritisation from nuclear non-proliferation towards human rights and European security concerns (Alcaro et al., 2023).

Negative effects of EU sanctions

The different measures and the involved sanctions have each had extensive consequences on varying aspects of the Iranian state and its people. Some of the consequences constitute the desired results of the policy adhered to by the EU. However, a significant amount of the effects is also unintentional and worrisome (Esfandiary, 2013). 

When studying varying case studies of economic sanctioning, economists have found that economic sanctions negatively affect not only the target states, but also third parties and the sanctioning states (Herbert, 2022, p. 2). In the case of Iran, sanctions have meant a negative effect on countries that import to Asia, due to the low prices of Iranian exports that have moved onto the Asian market (p. 9). The gravity of the consequences of sanctions depends not on the type of sanction, be it an all-encompassing sanction, targeted sanction, or “smart” sanction, but rather on the context of the sanctioned state (p. 2). In general, sanctions on Iran cause various unintended effects on the most vulnerable groups in Iran. According to case studies, sanctions on Iran, for example, cause Iranian women to be pushed out of the labour market (p. 4). Moreover, the sanctions have caused the decline of the health care system in Iran due to the low availability of medicine (p .11). 

With Iran being sanctioned by multiple different actors, like the US and UN, it is never as simple as to attribute a few different outcomes to unilateral EU sanctions only; especially when these are not as focused as smart sanctions (Ghodsi & Karamelikli, 2022). Nonetheless, EU sanctions have played a big role in affecting Iran. The sanctions have meant a contraction in Iranian oil exports which has caused massive inflation that has led to the reduction of purchasing power for Iranian households (World Bank, 2016). Due to EU and US sanctions, Iran has moved to trade with countries like China.

Throughout the time of imposed sanctions on Iran, many households working in the private sector and households with lower education levels moved into poverty (Ghomi, 2022). The EU goal of hitting the government through their sanctions, as a way of making them cooperate, was concluded not to be efficient (Ghomi, 2022). Those working in the private sector were hit significantly harder than their counterparts working as policymakers in the public sector (Ghomi, 2022).

EU sanctions are not always as effective as hoped. Besides having unintended consequences that cause ordinary Iranian people to move into poverty, the sanctions don’t directly contribute to stopping Iran’s nuclear program (Esfandiary, 2013). Instead, sanctions are only seen to act as a hindrance to the nuclear program, through it altering trade flows essential to the program (Esfandiary, 2013, p. 7). Moreover, not only were Iran’s economy, exports of oil and gas, industry, and poverty rate influenced by the sanctions imposed on the country; the sanctions imposed on Iran have also negatively impacted the Iranian middle class and caused an influx in corruption, while the Iranian government is becoming better at working around the sanctions (p. 8). Additionally, despite attempting to pressure Iran’s government to care more for human rights, the sanctions on Iran are actually seen to fuel “fuel regressive social policies” (Herbert, 2022, p. 16)

The future of EU Iran policy

As a result of these consequences, policy and Iran experts argue that the EU is not done developing newer and better policies of approaching Iran. An idea that lives among policy experts, is that of the EU needing to build a relationship with Iran based on shared interests (Javadi, 2021). Doing this would make the connection more genuine and it would thus also be easier for the EU to help Iranian civilians, through the Iranian regime being more cooperative. Most experts in favour of developing new EU approaches to Iran agree about how the scope of the EU approach needs to be broadened beyond the “nuclear hypnosis” and focus more on human rights (Fathollah-Nejad, 2018). Some also argue that this scope needs to develop more around building and maintaining economic and political connections with Iran (Fathollah-Nejad, 2018). The Iran strategy could be more balanced and focused on keeping economic and political connections stable while also remaining critical towards the authoritarian regime. Furthermore, for goals to be met quicker, it is advocated that the EU goals around Iran need to be limited and serve direct purposes that are communicated with Iran (Esfandiary, 2013, pp. 10-11).

What is shown to be increasingly more important among those concerned with the EU’s Iran policy, is the support which the EU needs to display towards Iranian society (Fathollah-Nejad, 2018). Four years before the Iranian 2022 protests and the government’s brutal crackdowns, it was already argued that the EU needs to have prepared a policy plan in dealing with state repression and must appear to be more supportive towards protesters (Fathollah-Nejad, 2018). Considering the 2022 protests and the way in which the Iranian regime handled the protesters, the EU still seems to need to improve in being able to help prevent violent repression of Iran’s society.   

However, where some policy and Iran experts argue for EU policy changes towards humanitarian goals, other experts agree that the EU still isn’t doing enough with regard to Iran being a security threat (Ghasseminejad & Taleblu, 2023). These experts say, for example, that the EU needs to engage with revolutionary organisations instead of the current regime while also employing specific tools to minimise the security threat that Iran poses to the region and the EU (Ghasseminejad & Taleblu, 2023).

No matter the specific concern, most experts seem to agree that yet another shift in EU policy towards Iran is necessary, be it to relieve Iranian citizens, protect EU security, or both.


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