Can the EU’s dual strategy towards Iran work?

The European Union is pursuing a double strategy, issuing reassurances with one hand and criticism and threats with the other.
Friday 08/02/2019
Thousands of Iranians opponents in exile stage a protest against the Teheran regime, days before the 40th anniversary of the Iranian Islamic Revolution, in Paris, France, February 8, 2019. (Reuters)
Thousands of Iranians opponents in exile stage a protest against the Teheran regime, days before the 40th anniversary of the Iranian Islamic Revolution, in Paris, France, February 8, 2019. (Reuters)

LONDON - In the week that Iran marked the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, the European Union issued a statement expressing “grave” concern towards Tehran’s ballistic missile programme and “hostile activities” in Europe.

The statement, however, also outlined European Union’s commitment to supporting the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), despite the United States’ unilateral withdrawal last year.

Are these two commitments compatible?

“Iran continues to undertake efforts to increase the range and precision of its missiles, together with increasing the number of tests and operational launches,” the EU statement said. “These activities deepen mistrust and contribute to regional instability.”

A few days later, Iran unveiled a cruise missile with a range of more than 1,300km. As the West has sought to check Tehran’s ballistic missile capabilities, Iran has expanded its cruise missile programme.

“Our main focus now is on production of cutting-edge cruise missiles and land-based missile defence systems,” said Commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Aerospace Force General Amir Ali Hajizadeh.

The timing of the events demonstrates the difficult position that the European Union finds itself in when dealing with Tehran, particularly because they coincide with the announcement of a long-awaited special purpose vehicle designed to insulate Tehran from US sanctions.

The introduction of the Instrument for Supporting Trade Exchanges (INSTEX) aims to prop up the JCPOA, providing Iran and third parties with a mechanism to avoid US sanctions while continuing to do business in Iran.

Although this financial understanding initially only concerns food and medicine, the question remains whether Europe will expand it to items subject to US sanctions before Tehran indicates a change in its “hostile” policies.

“[The European Union is] deeply concerned by the hostile activities that Iran has conducted on the territory of several member states,” the statement said. It criticised Iran’s “provision of military, financial and political support to non-state actors in countries such as Syria and Lebanon.”

Some European countries, including Denmark, Bulgaria, the Netherlands and Germany, have complained about Iran’s suspected espionage and assassination plots.

“It’s clearly state-directed, state-financed, state-controlled and it’s controlled by the people who have the levers of power in the Islamic Republic,” said Farzin Hashemi, a representative of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) during a conference in Brussels focusing on Iran’s terrorist threat to Europe.

The European Union formally sanctioned Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security in January for its alleged involvement in European plots. Iranian diplomat Assadollah Assadi is awaiting trial in Belgium on charges related to an alleged plot targeting an NCRI rally last year in Paris. Assadi, who had been based in Austria, is alleged to have provided two Iranian agents with explosives to be used in the plot.

“EU leaders keep insisting that the nuclear deal with Iran remains a European security interest but don’t they realise that all these Iranian assassination and bomb plots in Europe happened… after the nuclear agreement was signed?” asked former Spanish MEP Alejo Vidal-Quadras at the same meeting.

“The nuclear deal, instead of providing us more security, in reality contributed to ease the pressure on Tehran and give such security assurances at home so it could focus its attention on hunting down its opponents abroad.”

Tehran has been quick to bat away EU criticism with the Iranian Foreign Ministry saying it would never negotiate over its missile programme.

“Clear threats against the Islamic Republic are not constructive, efficient or helpful and they are not in line with regional security and the real interests of Europe,” the Iranian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

IRGC Brigadier-General Hossein Salami warned that Tehran could throw out a cap on its missile power if the European Union and others sought to pressure it.

“If the Europeans and others want to pursue the missile disarmament of the Islamic Republic of Iran based on a plot, we will have no option but to resort to a strategic leap,” said Salami in comments broadcast on state TV.

“Our defence strategy can change commensurate with the conditions and changes in the behaviour of role players,” he warned.

Even introducing INSTEX was not enough to please many in Tehran. Chief Justice of Iran Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani described INSTEX as imposing “humiliating conditions” on Tehran, Iran’s state-run Press TV said.

“After nine months of dawdling and negotiations, European countries have come up with a limited-capacity mechanism not for exchange of money with Iran but to supply food and medicine,” Larijani said at a meeting of judicial officials.

“These [European] countries must know that the Islamic Republic of Iran will by no means accept these humiliating conditions and will not give in to any demand in return for a small opening [in sanctions] like INSTEX,” he added.

The European Union is pursuing a double strategy, issuing reassurances with one hand and criticism and threats with the other. The question is: Can this strategy convince Iran to abandon its “hostile” policies in Europe?