Europe and Iran’s Threat Perception

by Eldar Mamedov

At the end of November, a delegation of senior European lawmakers visited Iran. The delegation was chaired by Janusz Lewandowski from Poland, a former EU commissioner, representing the center-right European People´s Party, the largest bloc in the European Parliament (EP). It also included long-standing advocates of engagement with Iran, such as the Austrian politician Josef Weidenholzer, a vice-president of the social-democratic faction, the second largest in the EP.

The visit of the delegation served to take a temperature in Tehran at a time of regional upheavals. The fact that the delegation was accorded a number of high-level meetings, such as with the ministers of foreign and internal affairs, Jawad Zarif and Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli respectively, and the speaker of the parliament Ali Larijani, among others, testified to the need both sides felt to strengthen relations.

The EP delegation took note of an increasing understanding on the Iranian side of the multi-layered nature of EU foreign policy. Iran clearly appreciates the efforts of the EU as an institution, and in particular of its High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, to safeguard the Iran nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA). At the same time, there is a more critical attitude towards the role played by the big EU trio of France, UK, and Germany.

In particular, French President Emmanuel Macron´s suggestion that Iran’s ballistic missile program should be the next big issue to negotiate caused considerable irritation. This move was widely seen as offering a quid pro quo to keep US committed to the JCPOA. The benefits secured as a result of Iran’s implementation of the JCPOA, however, were not made contingent on Iran’s policies in other areas. Only nuclear-related sanctions were lifted as a result of the JCPOA, not those referring to other areas, such as support for terrorism or human rights abuses. The arms embargo against Iran is also still in place. Iran in fact does not demand the lifting of those sanctions, only for all sides to implement fully the JCPOA-related commitments. The fact that the US is seen as infringing on the letter and spirit of the JCPOA is increasingly converting the agreement into what one of the delegation’s interlocutors called a “symbol of an impossibility to trust the international community.” This reaction may be an exaggeration, since all the other signatories of the JCPOA stick with the agreement, but it certainly lowers the incentives Iran might have to negotiate over other issues, including the missiles.

Another key reason why Iran is not ready to discuss its missile program is because it sees it as a crucial national defense matter. Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran´s Supreme Leader, has set the maximum range of the missiles as 2000 kilometers. This covers the region where Iran’s rivals are located, including American military bases, but not Europe and America proper. Iran does not see Europe as a threat.

However, the evolving regional context may challenge these assumptions.

First, there is the new Saudi bellicosity and willingness to challenge Iran everywhere, even where its role is relatively modest, as in Yemen.

Second, an alliance between Saudi Arabia under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) and the United Arab Emirates under Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed (MbZ) is seen as multiplying the threat. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi share hawkish views on Iran´s role in the region. Some Iranian defense analysts worry about the level of military interoperability they may enjoy, including perhaps with some other GCC countries.

Third, there is a distinct impression that the Trump administration, in bypassing the advice of its seasoned, although by no means Iran-friendly, national security officials, is encouraging the “reckless policies” of MbS and MbZ that risk to “set the region on fire.”

This being the context, Iranians are not only reluctant to make concessions on the missiles, but they also see the West, including the EU, as contributing to undermining their security—through massive arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Although such arms trade has existed for long time, Iranians were not particularly vocal about it. What has changed, however, is that Saudi Arabia and the UAE for the first time are perceived as direct military threats. Consequently, Western demands to limit Iran’s ballistic missiles program, even as arms trade with Iran’s Persian Gulf rivals, continues unabated, are going to be dismissed.

There is, of course, a time-honored option of trying to force concessions through new sanctions. In fact, Macron and his spokespersons hinted at such a possibility. But if the experience of the JCPOA teaches us anything, it is that Iran’s most likely response would be not to fold under the sanctions, but to accelerate the technical progress to the point when any eventual concessions could be negotiated from a much stronger position. For example, there is now a capacity to increase the range of the missiles beyond the current limit of 2000 kilometers to cover parts of Europe.

Although such a step is likely to ignite a fresh crisis between the EU and Iran, the need for good relations with Europe will not deter Iranians from taking decisions they consider vital for their defense. After all, Iranians are no strangers to standing up to a powerful array of forces against them: the experience of Saddam Hussein’s aggression still deeply pervades their thinking. Even if their revolutionary zeal has considerably worn down over the decades, Iranians would still rally around the government should they feel their security endangered.

There is, however, a way to avoid this crisis. The European Parliament has called on High Representative Mogherini to launch an initiative to stop EU arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The immediate trigger was massive violations of international humanitarian law in Yemen by the Saudi-led coalition. Earlier the leaders of four liberal-progressive groups in the EU (roughly representing half the chamber) called on Mogherini to do the same. Her answer suggested awareness of the problem, but pointed to the fact that arms sales are the business of individual member states and an anti-Saudi embargo would require unanimity among them. She is understandably reluctant to move on something the success of which is not assured.

However, the EU could still use its relations with all the players in the region to promote de-escalation of tensions and confidence-building measures. Given the tremendous loss of credibility of the US under the President Trump, Europe could play the role of the adult in the room. Understanding and appreciating threat perceptions on all sides (not the same as agreeing with them) would be a necessary precondition for such a role. From this point of view, the EP delegation’s visit was a useful step in fostering such understanding. Whether the national governments will build on it is, of course, a different question.

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament. Photo: Federica Mogherini in Tehran.

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. The U.S., UK and France have armed to the teeth the medieval Saudi regime, which is committing war crimes in Yemen and is in effect subsidizing the arms industries of those countries. Iran has no major foreign arms supplier and has developed its missile program as a deterrent and first line of defense. There is not even a pretense of denying Western hypocrisy or being complicit in Saudi crimes against Yemeni civilians.

  2. The writer of this article is ignorant of realities on the ground. Not once has he made any reference to the problems and threats posed by the Saudi regime as number one buyer of arms in the world. This makes me suspicious that Mr Memedov is not an impartial writer. These days buying people to write favourably is nor very expensive

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