24th Feb 2024


EU-Iran: sanctions are no substitute for real diplomacy

  • Tehran - the EU will be a better partner for the US if it boosts relations with Iran (Photo: kamshots)

Looking beyond the next round of negotiations in April in Kazakhstan, the EU should formulate a strategic approach towards Iran.

In its approach towards Iran, the EU employs the so-called twin-track method.

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On one hand, stringent financial sanctions are employed to bite hard into the Iranian economy.

On the other hand, the EU is leading negotiations in a collective diplomatic effort with five countries, the US, Russia, China, Germany, the UK and France, the so-called E3+3.

But despite the EU's prominence at the negotiating table (the talks are chaired by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton), its real relevance to the Iran problem is through its sanctions.

The effectiveness (or, in other words, the damage to Iran's economy) of the sanctions is considered to be the decisive factor for whether Iran falls into line with international concerns on its nuclear programme.

This approach is not adequate.

In order to develop its role as a relevant international actor, the EU should step up its diplomatic efforts on Iran.

Independently of its position as the chair of the E3+3, the EU needs its own strategic vision on Iran, a vision for a long term relationship with the country.


Firstly, because the sanctions are by their nature a transitory instrument - they are designed to be phased out if the talks go well.

As the April talks grow closer, there is increasing speculation that a deal could be reached.

Iran, weakened by sanctions-induced economic losses, is showing more flexibility and the US administration is more open than ever to a detente with its decades-old enemy.

The EU should make preparations now for a post-sanctions phase. If or when the sanctions go, they will leave a vacuum in EU-Iran relations.

If they stay, going into Iran's presidential elections, due in June, or longer, they will also pose new challenges.

There is no such thing as a sanctions status quo.

The effects are dynamic.

They are multiplying, affecting broader sections of Iranian society, hurting more and more the Iranian middle class, its political moderates, as well as vulnerable minorities.

The EU will come under increasing pressure to mitigate the humanitarian cost of its actions, to address criticisms that the measures are neither as "smart" nor as "targeted" as they were supposed to be.

Secondly, the EU needs a new approach because its interests in Iran go way beyond the nuclear dossier.

Iran is the EU's geographic neighbour.

Individual EU member states have much closer economic, cultural and people-to-people links with Iran than the US does.

If the EU aspires to play a meaningful role in the Middle East - on Syria, on the Arab-Israeli conflict, on the increasing tension between the Gulf regimes and Iran - it must build relations with all the relevant actors, including Iran.

If the EU aspires to influence Iran's dire human rights situation, it needs an open dialogue on rights as part of a new strategic framework.

Its current modus operandi - of publishing diplomatic reproaches - does not work.

Recently, the administration of US leader Barack Obama offered the prospect of bilateral talks with Iran.

While it remains uncertain whether this will ever come to be or produce results, it creates an opportunity for a new chapter on Iran geopolitics.

It is not a problem for the EU to let the US take the lead - they sing from the same hymn book on nuclear non-proliferation and on human rights.

It is also not a problem for EU-US relations or for the E3+3 process if the EU develops an independent bilateral policy on Iran.

Deeper EU-Iran relations, including the option of opening an EU embassy in Tehran, would increase its relevance as a strategic partner for the US and as the E3+3 chair.

For sure, Iran is not an easy bedfellow.

It is an epic challenge to persuade its leaders to reduce its number of centrifuges, to democratise, to respect international conventions on human rights.

But if the EU wants to play a real part in trying to make this happen, sanctions are not enough.

The writer is a Finnish MEP in the Green group in the European Parliament and the chair of the parliamentary delegation to Iran


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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