Can the EU Take the Lead on Iran?

Federica Mogherini

by Eldar Mamedov

The interim nuclear deal with Iran, the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) concluded on November 24, 2013, is rightly hailed as one of the few successes of the European common foreign and security policy. But as the EU3 (France, Germany, UK), alongside its other negotiating partners, struggles to clinch the final deal with Iran, the EU´s own lack of ambition and creativity risks snatching failure from the jaws of success. 

The EU negotiators insist on the end of March as the deadline for hammering out a framework accord with Iran, with technical details to be completed by June 2015. The negotiators no doubt have good intentions, but a fundamental flaw can still undo their efforts. Much like their American counterparts, the EU negotiators see the talks as a one-way street of imposing demands on Iran rather than a process of give and take leading to a sensible compromise. This is rooted in the assumption that pressure (the famous “dual track”) has brought Iran to the table and rung the concessions that made the interim deal possible. Consequently, to secure the final deal, more pressure is needed. Incentives, such as they are, can only be modest, reversible, and generally subordinate to the overall logic of pressure.

In this reading, senior EU officials see the drop in oil prices as a welcome additional layer of pressure on Iran and the modest economic improvements, such as diminishing inflation and dropping unemployment, as weakening the EU leverage. In other words, the worse off Iran is, the more likely the deal.

What’s Missing from the JPA?

But this approach ignores the fact that bringing Iran to the table is not the same as securing an actual deal. For Tehran to deem a final deal acceptable, it would have to contain benefits not available to Iran under the terms of the JPA, namely major sanctions relief. Iran signed the interim deal precisely because it was meant to be interim. The European negotiators appear to realize that a prolongation of the JPA is not an option because of the asymmetry of gains. Although the EU would continue pocketing Iran´s concessions enshrined in the JPA, Iran would still be denied serious sanctions relief and have no incentive to look for another extension of the agreement.

This is where some creativity and boldness from the EU could help to broker the deal. Since lifting, rather than suspending, the US sanctions against Iran would require cooperation from a recalcitrant Congress, the EU could step in and lift some of its own sanctions. In contrast to the United States, the procedure is quite straightforward: the Council of Ministers of the EU, the highest foreign-policy decision-making body of the EU, simply decides to do so. The EU imposed its harshest sanctions, such as an oil embargo and restrictive financial measures, in 2012. Since Iran has so far honored its commitments under the JPA, it would be logical to front-load the lifting of these sanctions as part of a final deal.

And the EU can already lift some sanctions struck down by the European Court of Justice (ECJ). A ruling of the ECJ on September 18, 2014 annulled some of the restrictive measures imposed on Iran’s Central Bank. A second ECJ ruling allowed the assets of the National Iranian Tanker Company (NITC) to be unfrozen. Lifting these sanctions now would both show the EU´s political will to achieve a deal with Iran and reaffirm commitment to the rule of law—a core European value.

As to those worried about the EU’s leverage over Iran, the UN-mandated sanctions would still remain in place, as would the EU sanctions imposed on Iran before 2012, for however long it would be necessary to verify Iran´s compliance with a final agreement.

Another concern often voiced by the EU negotiators is that regional allies, such as Israel and the Gulf states, fear that the concessions to Iran would embolden Iran to pursue its  “hegemonic regional ambitions.” Ensuring the buy-in of an eventual agreement with Iran by these states is important to diffuse tensions in the Middle East. But they should not have a veto power over the EU3+3 negotiations with Iran. Some of these states harbor highly disruptive sectarian and geopolitical agendas aimed not at achieving a better agreement with Iran but at isolating the country. This is clearly not in the European interest at a time when Tehran is emerging as potentially key ally against the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and al-Qaeda.

The EU Taking the Lead

In the past, the EU was reluctant to take bold constructive steps on Iran for fear of damaging the trans-Atlantic bond. This is no longer the case since the Obama administration and Congress are split on the issue. Lifting the EU sanctions would actually help the Obama administration both in negotiations with Iran and domestically. If Iranians get more of what they want, it will broaden the space for negotiations on issues important to the United States, such as cutting the number of Iranian centrifuges. And it would enable the administration to argue with Congress that not only would the EU not follow new sanctions, but the existing sanctions architecture could also crumble, since the United States, not Iran, would be seen as the spoiler of the negotiations.

In fact, the EU leaders have already reached out to Congress in an appeal not to impose new sanctions. British Prime Minister David Cameron made personal calls to some key US senators. The foreign ministers of UK, France, and Germany, together with the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, co-authored a piece in the Washington Post asking to give the Iran diplomacy a chance. And Mogherini reportedly met with the main sponsors of the new sanctions bill, Senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) in the United States in mid-January.

All this is fine, but for a deal to be reached it’s not enough not to impose new sanctions. The existing ones need to be lifted. And this can be done without imposing unbearable political costs on the EU governments. Unlike in the United States, Europe lacks any significant constituencies committed to halting a deal with Iran. The efforts of some pro-Israeli and neoconservative groups—such as the NGO Stop the Bomb out of mainly Germany and Austria, the Brussels-based European Foundation for Democracy with links to the hawkish Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies  (FDD), as well as Iranian exile opposition groups such as MKO—are not nearly as well-funded and influential as similar efforts in the United States.

Moreover, the Israeli government’s vociferous opposition to the deal could be another boon. As a string of recognitions of the Palestinian statehood by the parliaments of the EU member states and the European Parliament shows, European public opinion is growing increasingly critical of the policies of the Netanyahu government. If the EU governments clearly explain to the European public the benefits of a deal with Iran for advancing important European interests—such as a fight against IS and al-Qaeda terrorism, diversification of energy supplies, and new economic opportunities—they are unlikely to be met with much opposition.

EU officials involved in the talks often point to the Obama administration´s desire to score a major foreign policy success as a driver of the negotiations process. But the truth is, with multiple crises in its neighborhood and various other internal challenges, the EU needs a diplomatic success story even more desperately. The interim deal with Iran got it half way there. Now is the time to finish the job.

Photo of Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament.

Eldar Mamedov

Eldar Mamedov has degrees from the University of Latvia and the Diplomatic School in Madrid, Spain. He has worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia and as a diplomat in Latvian embassies in Washington D.C. and Madrid. Since 2007, Mamedov has served as a political adviser for the social-democrats in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament (EP) and is in charge of the EP delegations for inter-parliamentary relations with Iran, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, and Mashreq.



  1. Another crack in the wall. It’s way past the time for sober talk/action to be taking place in this “KABUKI” performance, before it comes apart at the seams. The fact that the U.S.Congress appears so far in denial as to their strutting like a bunch of roosters on a boardwalk, to impress the Netanyahoo no less, is going to end up making the “O” & the U.S. look like a bunch of idiots, instead of the real idiots, the stooges in the government. In the meantime, death and destruction continues in the countries where U.S./N.A.T.O. forces reside.

  2. I agree Norman. This a bunch of hogwash! The US administration must take the lead and finish this job and leave the opposing forces behind! The Iranians must be tested against their own claim that they can bring stability back in the ME. May be they should be given a chance! And if the Iranians fail in doing so then the regime will change due to the natural forces of the region. Either way the outcome could be positive for the region and the world!

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