Blogging on Issues of International and European Security

The European Union and Iran: Between Coercive and Ethical Diplomacy

EU High Representative Catherine Ashton and Iran Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif. Source:

EU High Representative Catherine Ashton and Iran Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (

by Raluca Csernatoni

When analysing the European Union’s (EU) involvement with Iran starting from the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the EU’s foreign policy has always been compared to and contrasted with the United States’ (US) or Russia’s foreign policy engagements. Yet there is an understated double-standard in such an assessment, due to the EU’s sui generis political identity and the stubbornness of critics to continue to judge the EU according to classical state templates. When interacting with a rigid international state like Iran that employs military pragmatism in its international behavior, the European Union’s diplomatic core, the European External Action Service (EEAS), as well as the EU’s other institutional structures, all have resorted to cautious tactical actions in a context in which internal and external structural limitations curtail the European Union’s foreign policy. Critics of the European Union[i] have been especially targeting both the European Union’s lack of a centralised locus of authority and its lack of a diplomatic culture, reasons that have accounted for the modest external relations outputs when hard-cases such as Iran’s nuclear enrichment program and the country’s human rights violations come into focus.

Because diplomacy is the realm of power politics, such critics remain skeptical about the EU’s capacity to deliver a coherent and constructive diplomatic response and alleviate the negotiations from a prolonged Iranian fatigue[ii]. Not to mention the stringent necessity forcing the EU to assume the role of an honest mediator between the United States and Iran on the issue of nuclear proliferation. The case of Iran is particularly interesting because it serves as a perfect test-case for the European Union’s external role and its dilemma between its human rights protection, normative discourse of ethics and the more pragmatic and coercive discourse of sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program.

In an unprecedented show of good faith, Iran took the first tentative steps on January 20th 2014 to limit its nuclear program under a deal with world powers and with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), setting the ground for the United States and the European Union to suspend some sanctions on its petrochemical products and the trade in gold. After the IAEA said that Iran had put on hold elements of its nuclear program, the EU decided to pave the way for the confidence building measures agreed upon in November 2013 with the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany. While both the EU and the US will continue their ban on Iranian oil imports, the EU pledged that EU companies may now insure ships carrying Iranian crude oil around the world with the exception of Europe. However, several EU sanctions remain in place on top of the restriction on the Iranian nuclear program, comprising in the ban on loans from EU banks to Iranian organisations and a ban on cargo flights from Iran to the EU.

The agreement reached in January 2014 was intended to improve negotiations and to prevent Iran from developing the full-fledged capacity to make nuclear weapons: Iran settled to dilute half of the uranium that it has enriched to 20%, assured not to enrich uranium beyond 5% in six months, and promised not to provide fuel for a nuclear reactor using the alternative, plutonium[iii]. For the same duration of six months the sanctions will be suspended, Iran being able to capitalise on €3.1 billion in oil revenues kept in foreign banks when the sanctions were imposed. The success of the talks was partly possible due to the EU’s role as a negotiator, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton leading the renewed debates after the fresh impetus given by Hassan Rouhani’s presidency election in August 2013.

Iran’s unprecedented openness comes as an aftermath of the country’s willingness to avert a deeper crisis, Rouhani’s election being expected to improve Iran’s dire economic situation. The gravity of Iran’s current economic crisis, the massive unemployment problems, and the necessity to reexamine ongoing socio-economic policies have all contributed to the election of moderate Rouhani, in a bid to orient the country towards generalised reforms and to transform Iran’s corroded relations with the West. However, Ashton stated that Iran’s concessions are ‘an important first step’, but she further noted that ‘more work will be needed to fully address the international community’s concerns regarding the exclusively peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear program’[iv].

Ashton’s steady work as a neutral negotiator helped ensure that EU countries stay in the game, answered previous critical voices concerning the EU’s incapacity to handle coercive international measures, and exceeded expectations as lead manager of the six global powers that agreed with Iran to curtail its nuclear program in January 2014. The EU’s engagement with Iran can be labelled as a success story for Catherine Ashton, according to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry she proved to be ‘a persistent and dogged negotiator and somebody who’s been staying at this for a long period of time’[v]. As Robert Cooper has argued, ‘when dealing with more old-fashioned kinds of states outside the postmodern limits, Europeans need to revert to the rougher methods of an earlier era – force, pre-emptive attack, deception, whatever is necessary for those who still live in the nineteenth-century world of every state for itself. In the jungle,’ he concludes, ‘one must use the laws of the jungle’[vi] – advice which does not fit comfortably with the pursuit of a self-consciously ‘ethical’ agenda based on second-order normative concerns.’[vii] Was this the case of EU and Iran relations and diplomatic talks?

Looking back on EU and Iran interactions, the EU has been making use of different sets of diplomatic strategies when engaging Iran, from bilateral and trilateral discussions, mediations, statements, upgrading and downgrading practices, critical and comprehensive dialogues, to restrictions and sanctions due to the ongoing problems related to the nuclear issue and the uranium enrichment problem. While maintaining sanctions as the centerpiece of its diplomacy with Iran, the European Union remains the first trade partner of Iran[viii], accounting for a third of its exports. During the Edinburgh Summit in 1992, the EU launched a new policy towards Iran, the Critical Dialogue[ix] that had as main goals the gradual change of Iran’s behavior by resorting to negotiations on political and human rights issues, the improvement of political relation in order to have access to Iranian markets and oil.

After the election of president Khatami in 1998, the dialogue was renamed to Comprehensive Dialogue[x], encompassing semi-annual meetings of the EU-3 (France, United Kingdom, Germany) with the Iranian leadership addressing global and regional issues and areas of cooperation[xi]. The case of Iran is an illuminative example of blurring the boundaries between military civil purposes in uranium enrichment actions. Under an IAEA Comprehensive Agreement (CSA), a state may develop facilities for uranium enrichment, having the right to undertake such activities without giving clear-cut economic explanations. The creation of the EEAS has sparked a new influx of diplomatic engagements, with the High Representative Catherine Ashton facing one of the toughest challenges to date for the EEAS. In the wake after Ahmadinejad’s contested 2009 election and an array of human right infringements, the EEAS also faced a diplomatic dilemma, should it emphasise the human rights issue more or the procrastinated uranium enrichment problem. Neither of the two policy options fully guarantees the practical success of a comprehensive foreign policy with Iran, both the human rights dossier and the uranium enrichment one becoming more and more an instance of diplomatic rhetoric without coercive power.

The EU has been well placed to endorse international legal and structural nuclear fuel supply guarantees and stricter international regulatory guidelines, as well as the implementation of on-the-ground, impromptu and special inspections as preventive measures and good practice. However, the EU’s response has proven to be weak, with the potential exception of the 2003 negotiations, when the EU-3 adopted a coercive diplomatic approach towards Iran regarding the nuclear dossier, the EU-3 effort attempting to establish a reasonable balance between Iran’s peaceful nuclear enrichment program and the safeguards of the international community against acquiring nuclear weapons[xii]. The human rights issue has presented itself also on the EU’s agenda after the Iranian June 2009 elections, after which numerous instances of human right infringements have been reported, culminating with the post-Arab Spring systematic repressions and increase in executions including journalists, bloggers, human rights activists, ethnic and minority groups[xiii]. Facing harassments, arrests, and even death for expressing their right to freedom of speech and peaceful protest, individuals or non-profit organisations were in much need of the EU’s support.

In the post-Arab Spring volatile regional security context, the risks that a non-democratic regime would feel threatened and act unpredictably by acquiring the necessary scientific, technical and industrial capability to manufacture nuclear weapons without violating the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards obligations are very high. As the largest Shia state and the leader of the ‘Islamic resistance front’, Iran is often perceived as an aspirant regional hegemon and a threat to Sunni Arab nations and Israel, its end goal being the weakening of Western (especially US) influences and presence in the region. On top of continuing to actively support its resistance front ally in Syria[xiv] through the provision of arms, money, and training support, Iran is pursuing its military pragmatism strategy in the region through its missile program including a laser-guided surface-to-surface and air-to-surface missile as well as a new long-range ballistic missile with multiple warheads[xv]. The test-firing of new missiles designed to destroy ‘all types of enemy military equipment’[xvi] on February 11, 2014 by Iran poses a continued threat to the region and comes only days after Iranian warships were reported in the vicinity of US maritime borders.

All in all, although the EU-3 (Germany, France, and the UK) negotiated along with the US, Russia, and China  the Iranian nuclear dossier, it seems that the EU has become primus inter pares at the consultations table, with Russia and China taking a step back and avoiding antagonisms with Iran. Handling Tehran’s nuclear enrichment program on its own is no small endeavor for the EU, especially because Iran has not shown any intention to stop its nuclear ambitions nor listened to calls for substantive discussions until this January. The interim nuclear agreement[xvii] settled by Iran and the P5+1 group (the give permanent member of the UN Security Council – US, Russia, China, UK, and France, plus Germany) in January makes no reference in curtailing Iran’s regional behavior, the country’s foreign and security policy in the Middle East remaining unregulated.

Embarking on a path to a nuclear zero must have as a prerequisite the fundamental element of confidence building between the EU and Iran, in order to eliminate fears of a first nuclear strike. To avoid a renewal of Cold War deterrence-based scenarios of nuclear rivalry between Iran and the US, the EU should further engage other international actors such as the US, Russia, or China in a multilateral attempt to increase the mutual understanding between parties based on common objectives and shared restraints. Ultimately, a toned down approach from grand visions of nuclear eradication to more pragmatic collaborative schemes of confidence-building between the EU and Iran have proven to be more lucrative in the long-run for the non-proliferation regime and ultimately for the international security context. The effect should be a good-example setting that demonstrates the possibility to reconcile the prerequisites of deterrence and defense with a dedication to reduce the role of nuclear weapons globally.

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[ii]Parsi, Rouzbeh (2011) Iran in the shadow of the 2009 presidential elections, Occasional paper, European Union Institute for Security Studies (ISS): 1-43.

[vii]Hyde-Price, Adrian (2008) “A ‘tragic actor’? A realist perspective on ‘ethical power Europe’”, International Affairs, 84(1): 29-44.

[viii]The European Commission, Trade information with Iran: ‘The EU is the first trade partner of Iran, accounting for almost a third of its exports. Close to 90% of EU imports from Iran are energy related. Iran ranks as 6th supplier of energy products for the EU.’,, date accessed 20 March 2012.

[xi]Quille, Gerrard, and Keane, Rory (2005) Chapter 6 ‘The EU and Iran: towards a new political and security dialogue’, in Kile, N. Shannon (ed.) Europe and Iran: perspective on non-proliferation, Oxford University Press: 152.

[xii]Bahgat, Gawdat (2006) ‘Nuclear proliferation: The Islamic Republic of Iran’, Iranian Studies, 39(3): 307-327.

[xiii]EU statements regarding Human Rights in Iran,, date accessed 20 March 2012.



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