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Iran: A big challenge for the European Union

Submitted by on 27 Jun 2011 – 15:13

By Sebnem Tugce Pala

Iran is a very significant country in the international arena, especially in terms of its large reserves of gas and oil and its key role in the future of the Gulf Region. Iran is the sixth largest energy supplier to the European Union and the EU is Iran’s largest trading partner. There is clearly a mutual benefit between Iran and the EU in terms of trade and energy. Moreover, Abbas Maleki states that “the Iranian economy has experienced a period of sustainable growth and there is reason to believe that in the absence of a major regional crisis, this trend will continue, potentially leading to Iranian gross domestic product (GDP) growth rates which would be higher than the world average over the next few years” (Maleki 2007, 106)[1]. From this perspective, the EU has both political and economic reasons to have good relations with Iran.

However, relations between Iran and the EU have always been controversial and unstable, consisting of many ups and downs in recent history. If we assess the history of the relations between Iran and the EU before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, prior to this event, Iran had very good relations with the European Community (EC). Nevertheless, relations between Iran and the EU came to a state of impasse for a while owing to the Islamic Revolution.

In 1995, a new dialogue started between Iran and the EU. Through the election of President Khatami in 1997, things started to improve. During Khatami’s period in office, the Italian Prime Minister went to visit Tehran and in return, President Khatami visited Italy, Germany and France. Furthermore, the dialogue between Iran and the EU developed into the Comprehensive Dialogue in 1988. In this dialogue, three main areas, global issues (terrorism, abuse of human rights and non-proliferation), regional issues (Middle East peace process) and areas of cooperation (drugs, refugees, energy, trade and investment) were highlighted. In other words, those issues were set as the preconditions for sustainable and increased cooperation between Iran and the EU. There are many areas, particularly in the first two categories in which Iran continues to behave in ways which the EU, the US, and its regional neighbours find problematic, and in the third category it also faces domestic problems relating to all of the highlighted areas.

Most importantly, Iran’s nuclear programme is the main concern of the EU and others at present. Current discussions between Iran and the EU tend to focus on Iran’s nuclear programme. On 21 October 2003, the EU-3 (France, Germany and the United Kingdom) managed to sign an agreement with Iran in which Iran agreed to suspend its enrichment programme. Nonetheless, it is clear that Iran is still looking for the ways to develop nuclear energy sources, while continuing to take advantage of its oil and gas resources at the same time.

The most recent unilateral sanctions were imposed on Iran by the Council of the EU due to Iran’s nuclear issue on 26 July, 2010. Two rounds of multifaceted talks between Iran and the major world powers P5+1 (the United Kingdom, China, France, Russia and the United States plus Germany) were held in Geneva in December 2010 and Istanbul in January 2011. The High Representative for the European Union, Baroness Catherine Ashton maintained that the world powers were keen to continue talks with the Islamic Republic without any preconditions, but she also pointed out the group’s position with regards to Iran’s nuclear program.

The Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Saeed Jalili , is also eager to continue talks with the High Representative for the European Union, Baroness Catherine Ashton. Jalili stated, I welcome your return to talks for cooperation on common grounds in response to Ashton’s earlier letter. However, Ashton pointed to a recent letter from Saeed Jalili and said, “On its own, Dr Jalili’s letter does not contain anything new and does not seem to justify a further meeting”.

The meeting in Istanbul ended with no agreement and no date for any other meeting has been set. The High Representative for the European Union, stated, We’d hoped to embark on a discussion of practical ways forward and have made every effort to make that happen,” and she added, “I am disappointed.” Nevertheless, the doors will remain open for future talks with the EU, and the choice can actually be made by Iran.

There remains a huge potential for deeper relations between Iran and the EU relating to the mutual benefits which have already been mentioned, but realising this potential remains hugely problematic. Iran continues to assert its willingness to develop nuclear energy sources, while the EU continues to underestimate Iran’s determination in regards to the nuclear energy issue.

Apart from the nuclear energy issue, the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee has also been focusing on human rights abuses, especially since the 2009 presidential elections, and they strongly condemned the execution of Dutch-Iranian national Zahra Bahrami in Tehran on 29 January 2011. The resolution drafted by Bastiaan Belder MEP stated that he was “dismayed that the Iranian authorities denied consular access to Ms Bahrami and did not ensure a transparent and fair judicial process”.  Furthermore, the Foreign Affairs Committee has stated that the number of executions in Iran in 2009 was the highest in the past ten years, a situation which meant that Iran had the highest number of executions per capita in the world.

In February 2011, the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee called for fresh EU sanctions to combat human rights abuses. The committee recommended that Representatives of EU institutions should develop contacts with representatives of a broad range of Iranian political and social life, including prominent Iranian human rights defenders, adding that more support should be given to grassroots activities and people-to-people contacts.

Iran has the world’s second largest gas reserves and it has been playing a long game with the EU and the US for the last decade on the issue of its nuclear ambitions. Despite the fact that talks continue to take place, or at least to be on the table, relations are likely to remain problematic until such time as Iran starts to realise that its long term economic growth can be vastly enhanced by normal relations with its neighbours and countries beyond.

Along-side its medium to long term ambitions to be a nuclear power, however, short-termism, chronic administrative incompetence, corruption, self–interest in place of true national development interest, and human rights abuses, all continue to ensure that normal relations with the European Union and others remain a long way away.


[1] [1] Maleki, Abbas (2007), ‘Energy Supply and Demand in Eurasia: Cooperation between EU and Iran’, China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly, 5:4, 103-113.