Blogging on Issues of International and European Security

Revisiting the EU’s Sanctions Policy over Iran’s Nuclear Programme: Strategic Challenges Ahead

On 15 October 2012 the EU tightened its sanctions over Iran by imposing stricter measures targeting the country’s banking, trade and energy sectors. Source: REUTERS.

by Moritz Pieper, PhD candidate and Teaching Assistant at University of Kent – Brussels School of International Studies

Talks over the Iranian nuclear programme are once again stalled, after three rounds of high-level meetings between Iran and the EU3+3 in 2012 alone, held in Istanbul in April, in Baghdad in May and in Moscow in June. Last September, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton’s one-on-one talks with Saeed Jalili, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, came after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dangerously beat the war drums again while graphically speaking before the UN General Assembly of the ‘red line’ that Iranian nuclear enrichment was not supposed to cross.

In addition to the already existing sanctions against Iran, the EU Council “significantly broadened EU restrictive measures against the country” as announced on 15 October 2012, targeting the Iranian nuclear and ballistic programmes and their respective government revenues, which in practice means (yet to be concretised) export bans, an Iranian gas import ban, further asset freezes and travel bans against “entities active in the oil and gas industry and in the financial sector” [1]. New measures also include the banning of “flagging and classification services for Iranian oil tankers and cargo vessels” and a comprehensive restriction of banking transactions between European and Iranian banks, “unless they are explicitly authorised in advance by national authorities under strict conditions”[2]. These additional sanctions come after the imposition of the EU embargo on Iranian crude oil exports, effective as from 1 July 2012.

While the EU keeps emphasizing that these measures are not aimed at the Iranian people, and are only supposed to dry up the financial sources of the country’s nuclear programme suspected to have a hidden military dimension, the rapid fall of the Iranian Rial together with a massive commodity price increase this year illustrates a worsening economic situation as a result of international sanctions imposed on the country (coupled with the economic mismanagement of the Ahmadinejad administration).[3] In sum, these sanctions are doing exactly what they are not intended to do, and one can even conclude that EU sanctions on Iran are counter-productive for two other main reasons.

First, the EU embargo on Iranian crude oil exports can be seen as an ill-conceived policy that especially harms Southern EU Member States themselves. Greece, Spain and Italy heavily depend on crude oil imports from Iran.[4] A complete oil embargo conceived of as a politically punitive stance on Iran does not punish the Iranian government (as long as e.g. China is willing to buy off oil that the EU no longer wants), but strains even more precisely those European economies that are already struggling with a severe recession. The fact that Greece insisted on the pledge that energy supplies would be secured for all Member States (thus providing a legal basis to review the embargo if it threatened energy supplies) illustrated the inconsiderate reasoning underlying such a policy.[5]

Secondly, another important reason that can greatly affect the course of negotiations on the Iran dossier is the fact that a too punitive EU policy alienates Iranian dialogue partners and essentially undermines the EU’s legitimacy and credibility in Iran. Tellingly, Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei publicly called the EU sanctions “foolish” measures that would only prove Europe’s subordination to the interests of the US.[6] Arguably, the EU’s very asset in the EU3+3 (France, Germany, the UK+ China, Russia, the US) framework was its potential to constructively mediate between the two diametrically opposed positions of Iran and the US. With diplomatic relations between both countries absent since the Iranian revolution of 1979 and the ensuing hostage crisis in the US embassy in Tehran, it fell to the EU3 (France, Germany, the UK; together with the EU High Representative for the Union’s Foreign and Security Policy) to lead the negotiations. In addition to the fact that the EU3 position is more often than not regarded by Iran (and arguably also by China and Russia, the two other decisive EU3+3 members) as an ill-defined “E1+1+1” position due to partially divergent national interests in Europe,[7] an EU approach that appears too punitive on Iran comes not only at a time when the EU is losing credibility due to its internal fragmentation and inability to speak with one voice, but also at a time when there is talk of reviving direct American-Iranian contacts.[8] This might well be a watershed for the further course of events related to the Iranian nuclear dossier and will, in all likeliness, diminish the role of the EU within the EU3+3 (P5+1- the permanent UNSC members+ Germany- will become a more accurate labeling of the format).

The recent outcome of the US presidential elections comes as a relief for anyone concerned about the diplomacy surrounding Iran, with Obama’s re-election ruling out the possibility of a US administration siding with the risky Israeli saber-rattling under a hawkish Romney. Nonetheless, it remains to be seen how the Israeli parliamentary elections in January 2013 as well as the Iranian presidential elections in June 2013 (president Ahmadinejad being increasingly isolated domestically and having fallen out of favour with Supreme Leader Khamenei) play out concerning diplomatic initiatives of those country’s leaders.

With a view to these developments, the EU would be well advised to follow a policy that does not risk alienating the Iranians and undermining its own credibility. In this regard, Europe’s position on Syria will inevitably impact on its ‘credentials’ in Iran. Moreover, the Hezbollah-Syria-Iran axis cannot be viewed completely detached from the Iranian nuclear issue due to the intricate complexities of regional politics. Europe should aim at policies both toward Syria and toward the Iranian nuclear programme that will not risk a ‘spill-over’ of counter-productive reactions on either side. Blacklisting Hezbollah as a terrorist organization (as is being pushed for by the US, UK and the Netherlands) would not be all too smart a step in that direction, as it will only provide an incentive for Hezbollah to openly support Assad, which it has so far refrained from doing. It will also increase the Iranian perception of the EU as following unnecessarily punitive policies instead of pragmatically engaging in constructive dialogues with all parties involved to work toward peaceful conflict resolutions in the region – especially at a time when the US is considering re-opening direct communication channels with Iran.


[2] Ibid.

[3]    „Iran’s rial hits an all-time-low against the US dollar.“ Accessed from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-19786662

[4]    „EU slaps oil embargo on Iran“. Accessed from: http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2012/01/23/eu-slaps-oil-embargo-on-iran/

[5]    „EU Confirms Full Iran Oil Embargo to Start Sunday“. Accessed from:   http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304870304577488954027928794.html

[6]    „Iran leader: EU support of sanctions is ‘foolish’“. Accessed from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/feedarticle/10476864

[7]    cf. p. 14: Holslag, Jonathan. 2010. Europe’s normative disconnect with the emerging powers. BICCS Asia paper vol. 5, no. 4: 1-21. Accessed from: http://www.vub.ac.be/biccs/site/assets/files/apapers/2010301%20-%20Normative%20disconnect.pdf

[8]    „Ahmadinejad Wants Direct Talks with US on Iran Nuclear Issue“. Accessed from: http://www.turkishweekly.net/news/144630/ahmadinejad-wants-direct-talks-with-us-on-iran-nuclear-issue.html

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