EU-Iran Ties in the Shadow of BREXIT


This post is based on an aspect of a paper presented on a roundtable titled Global Power Aspirations? Assessing the European Union’s (EU) Relations with Regional and Great Powers in the Shadow of BREXIT at the 2018 International Studies Association (ISA) Annual Convention from April 4-7, 2018. The roundtable brought together academics from a number of institutions to address EU ties with the United States of America (US), Russia, China, South Africa, Turkey, and Iran. It is part of a larger project examining these relations, in addition to EU ties with Brazil, India, and Japan. This post focuses on the EU’s relationship with Iran, and in particular in the shadow of the 2016 BREXIT decision.


Initially, it is worth considering the underlying drivers of EU ties with Iran, and vice-a-versa. Specifically, the basis of these ties is consistent with the EU’s founding principle concerned with interdependence within the union itself. Indeed, the root of the EU project, set out in the 1951 Paris Treaty, operates under the notion that when two nations pool their natural resources, they become mutually dependent on one another. To begin with, this came in the form of France and Germany pooling coal and steel to forcibly tie the production of weapons to one another in 1951. This ethos was then extended to other members of the union and then in the EU’s foreign policy endeavors. Iran has been no exception to this approach, as I explained in The Political Economy of EU ties with Iraq and Iran.

Brussels’ ties with Tehran have kept to this EU notion of interdependence. Indeed, the EU has repeatedly implemented policies explicitly linking the use of political and economics tools to foster relations with Iran. In addition, the union has been careful to ensure that when it comes to strategic and security issues, such as the 1989 Salman Rushdie Fatwa, the 1996 US Iran and Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA) and the EU reaction, the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, and more recent human rights disputes and regional conflicts, each issue has been dealt with in isolation. Simultaneously, the Iranian regime has complimented this approach, particularly in its endeavor to recover and develop the country in the wake of the US-led sanctions following the 1979 Revolution, the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, and the nuclear program. In the context of BREXIT, this has continued along the same trajectory, and is likely to continue do so.

Indeed, following the 2016 BREXIT vote, international concerns grew over what this would mean for EU ties with other nation states. When it came to Iran, these concerns point to the durability of the 2015 JCPOA, which agreed to lift sanctions on the Middle Eastern state in exchange for scaling back the nuclear program. The JCPOA, led and signed by the P5+1 (the US, UK, France, Russia, China, plus Germany) and Iran, was chaired by the EU, hailed a success, and pointed to the importance of Brussels when it came to international security issues. The 2016 BREXIT vote therefore raised questions as to whether this was something that could suffer as a result. Indeed, since (and before) the BREXIT vote, there have been a number of vocal critics of the JCPOA in Iran, Europe, and notably from the US President Donald Trump himself.

Whilst it is too early to tell what the outcome of the BREXIT negotiations will look like and the impact this will have on EU ties with Iran, a number of pathways have began to form as to what the most likely routes will be. Significantly, it is clear that the UK’s role in future EU decision making and actions (including those tied to the JCPOA), needs to be clarified. As the UK has been an important actor in EU-Iranian relations, it may well be that London maintains an informal ‘as and when’ role when it comes to EU-Iran engagement. This however, would undermine the structure of the EU itself. The alternative is that the UK is formally ‘written in’ to the EU decision making process, thereby maintaining the clout of the union in the EU-Iran relationship. This however may very well be unpalatable to the hardline pro-BREXIT audience in the UK. Or indeed, there may be a new and imaginative EU-UK agreement that balances each of these aspects…

Regardless of these elements, it is clear that the UK and the EU maintain a similar and united JCPOA stance on sanctions on Iran. As a result, BREXIT will likely lead to the need for a more complex way of maintaining this position to appease both sides of the UK-EU negotiations. In addition, should the UK and the EU’s interests shift following the BREXIT deal, this will also likely have an impact on EU ties with Iran, and indeed the JCPOA.

This has all come at a time when the EU has sought to deepen ties amongst its members, in recognition of the need to act with an increasingly communal voice when dealing with global concerns. The 2016 EU Global Strategy is one of the most recent manifestations of this. That being said and perhaps most importantly, in just over a year since the BREXIT vote, and amid the continued rails against the JCPOA, the agreement has stood strong. This demonstrates how important the global institutions and order are, and the fact that they have weathered these critiques, something that I argued in ‘The Political Economy of US-Iranian Relations’. As a consequence, it is becoming apparent that these mechanisms have been able to resist such deriding developments, including BREXIT, and it will be the outcome of the EU-UK negotiations will determine the trajectory of Brussels’ ties with other nations.

Image: Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman leads the U.S. delegation to the P5+1 talks with Iran in Geneva, Switzerland, on November 20, 2013, Department of State.

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