Politics & Society
E3 in the Middle
Europe’s Awkward Position between the U.S. and Iran
Though it may be hard to remember how close we felt to the brink of war earlier this month in the wake of the American-ordered assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, tensions between the United States and Iran are far from resolved. Conflict could flare back up at any moment, making an examination of Europe’s precarious balancing act between its long-term alliance with the United States and its strategic interests in the Middle East a useful exercise.
European reactions to the most recent escalation were quite revealing about its awkward position on the global stage. While messaging varied slightly[i] in tone from country to country, the overall European response was notable for both its brevity and its caution.
On January 6, French President Macron, German Chancellor Merkel, and British Prime Minister Johnson—sometimes known as the E3—issued a joint statement calling on “all parties to exercise utmost restraint and responsibility.”[ii] That same day, when NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg offered brief remarks to the press, he refused to deviate at all from his talking points of de-escalation and continuing the fight against ISIS. For her part, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen—whose Minister of Foreign Affairs, Josep Borell, had early in the crisis personally invited Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to Brussels—issued a statement saying that Europe has a “special responsibility” to “halt the cycle of violence.”[iii]
Absent from any reaction was overt criticism of the United States. There was no condemnation (not publicly, anyway[iv]) of President Trump’s sudden and stunning retaliation against Iranian aggression. The closest thing resembling disapproval came from NATO’s Stoltenberg, who, after many attempts to avoid sharing his opinion on Trump’s action, finally uttered simply that the airstrike was a “U.S. decision.”[v]
Europe’s tepid support for its longtime ally stands in stark contrast to its expression of unanimous, unwavering solidarity during past tensions between the U.S. and Iran. But it should not come as a shock. After all, the Trump Administration has spent the past three years devaluing and even eroding transatlantic ties. In an interview on January 3, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lamented: “Frankly, the Europeans haven’t been as helpful as I wish that they could be.”[vi] But it was clear that President Trump had not consulted his European counterparts—let alone the U.S. Congress—prior to the attack.
Europe’s tepid support for its longtime ally stands in stark contrast to its expression of unanimous, unwavering solidarity during past tensions between the U.S. and Iran. But it should not come as a shock. After all, the Trump Administration has spent the past three years devaluing and even eroding transatlantic ties.
On the other hand, though the EU made noise about Iran’s recent bad behavior throughout the region, European leaders did not outright condemn the Islamic Republic either. After decades of U.S. dominance in the Middle East, Europe’s relationship with Iran may be less obvious, but it is no less extensive.
First, a Hands-on Approach
European fingerprints can be found all over Iran’s history, and ties between European countries and Iran predate any of their modern-day borders. British (and Russian) troops occupied much of Persia during and immediately following World War I, and in 1921 a British-backed coup d’état brought Reza Khan to a position of “virtual dictatorial power.”[vii] He eventually appointed himself Shah, and in 1935 renamed the country Iran—a name meant to symbolize its independence from foreign control.
At the beginning of World War II, despite Reza Shah’s close economic ties with Germany (nearly half of Iran’s trade was with Germany in 1941[viii]) and fear of British and Russian interest in Iran, the Shah declared that Iran would remain neutral during the conflict. This neutrality was short lived. In 1941 (after British intervention[ix]) Reza Shah was sent into exile and replaced by his pro-British son. Once in power, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi signed the Tripartite Treaty of Alliance with Great Britain and the Soviet Union, and Iran declared war on Germany in 1943.
The British controlled much of Iran’s oil supplies until the 1950s, when democratically-elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddegh nationalized Iranian oil (at which point MI6 and the CIA orchestrated a coup[x] to overthrow him—an act that Iranians never forgot). For the following three decades, the U.S. interests in Iran greatly overshadowed European ones.
Then, a Hands-off Approach
The period between the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal, was defined by a series of starts and stops with regard to European-Iranian relations. The British cut ties with Iran after 1979, then opened and shut down diplomatic relations every few years until 2015, when the British Embassy finally reopened in Tehran. France had a similar “on again, off again” flirtation with Iran during that time. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, for example, France went back on its 1973 agreement to supply Iran with enriched uranium, a dispute not fully settled until 1992.[xi]
Underlying tumultuous political and economic relations between Europe and Iran was the Islamic Republic’s campaign against those it considered enemies of the state. This “homicidal campaign”[xii] sometimes led to acts of violence on European soil. According to the CIA, Iran plotted against dozens of “Iranian defectors and dissidents in West Germany, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and Turkey” between 1979 and 1994, with the first successful assassination in Western Europe occurring in 1984.[xiii]
This history of Iranian state-sponsored violent activity helps explain why fighting terrorism was at the forefront of current European leaders’ minds—and statements—during the recent tension between Iran and the United States. It also sheds light on Europe’s steadfast commitment to the nuclear deal; Europeans have first-hand experience with Iran’s capabilities and are rightfully wary of learning what it would mean for the Islamic Republic to acquire a nuclear bomb.
Following the 2015 agreement, trade between Europe and Iran rose steadily. From 2015 to 2016, German exports to Iran increased by 27 percent,[xiv] and in 2016 France was Iran’s 13th largest supplier of goods.[xv] Giant European companies like Daimler, PSA Peugeot Citroën, Siemens, and Total rushed to invest in Iran,[xvi] and though from the beginning their investments were not as promising as they’d envisioned, all economic advances were severely compromised after the United States unilaterally pulled out of the Iran Nuclear Deal in May 2018. Notably, in a move that hinted at past French behavior, the energy company Total announced it was pulling out of a $4.8 billion Iranian gas field project,[xvii] claiming vulnerability to U.S. sanctions.
Still, in 2018 EU countries launched the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX), a mechanism that will allow European companies to trade with Iran despite U.S. sanctions. The invention of INSTEX is arguably less about maintaining robust trade relations with the Islamic Republic—to stay in compliance with U.S. sanctions, trade will initially focus on “humanitarian goods” such as pharmaceutical products, medical devices, and food—and more about encouraging Iran to not abandon the nuclear deal.[xviii]
The invention of INSTEX is arguably less about maintaining robust trade relations with the Islamic Republic, and more about encouraging Iran to not abandon the nuclear deal.
Nevertheless, not unlike during the period between World War II and the 1979 Islamic Revolution, American strength appears to overshadow European efforts with regard to Iran. Europe’s best efforts to invest in Iran’s economy are no match for the hundreds of billions. Europeans stand to lose should they find themselves on the wrong side of the Trump Administration’s wrath. In fact, days after the Trump administration threatened a 25 percent tariff on European automobiles,[xx] on January 14, France, Britain, and Germany triggered the JCPoA dispute mechanism, enraging Iran and threatening to blow up the entire nuclear deal.
Europe’s best efforts to invest in Iran’s economy are no match for the hundreds of billions Europeans stand to lose should they find themselves on the wrong side of the Trump Administration’s wrath.
For the time being, it appears that Europe will continue to put America first, although according to Andreas Schweitzer, an expert advisor on the Iranian market, “Those who want this 80-million-person market and have a long-term strategy will go there with or without Mr. Trump.”[xxi] Unless and until there is a change in the current stick-heavy and carrot-light U.S. foreign policy, Europe may very well begin to reevaluate its awkward position in the middle of rising and falling tensions between the United States and Iran.