No one in Brussels can have failed to take note of the escalating tensions in the Persian Gulf over the past week. The oil tanker attacks and Iran’s latest threats to exceed its uranium stockpile limits have focused all eyes on the region.
As the current Commission term comes to an end, it is difficult not to see these events in the light of the EU’s failed approach to Iran over the last five years. Iran has made a mockery of EU efforts to exert the bloc’s diplomatic power through the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). For the duration of the agreement, Iran has acted with free reign to promote terrorism and undermine the work of national European leaders to bring stability to the region.
Last Saturday 15 June, marches in Brussels protesting this inaction by the EU against Iranian aggression were met once again with silence. Europe has consistently sent this same worrying message to the regime: no matter how far Iran pushes the bounds, whether, through support for militants in Syria or through sponsoring of Lebanese Hezbollah, Europe will stand by and say nothing. Calls for the EU to designate the Mullahs’ Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and their Ministry of Intelligence (MOIS) as terrorist entities have been ignored, leaving Iran free to expand its influence and control in the region.
When it was signed in 2015, the sole purpose of the JCPOA from a European perspective was to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear arsenal. As a byproduct, the de-escalation of regional tensions and the imposition of some control over the Iranian regime was hoped for. These hopes have not come to pass.
The sole focus on the nuclear issue, from a European security perspective, has some merit. Nothing is more important than preventing an unstable regime fewer than 2,000km from the EU’s eastern border from obtaining nuclear weapons, especially given the IRGC commander-in-chief’s warning back in 2017 that Iran is prepared to increase the range of its missiles to greater than 2,000 km. Iran has shown no signs of slowing the development of its ballistic missile program, which is inextricably intertwined with its nuclear program. France, Germany and Britain expressed concern in a letter to the Secretary-General Antonio Guterres last April, that Iran’s latest ballistic missile activities are part of increasing actions to develop missiles capable of delivering a nuclear weapon.
Teheran, up to now, has simply taken full advantage of a watered-down UN Security Council Resolution 2231 whose strong language that said Iran “shall not” engage in ballistic-missile activities was replaced with weaker language that merely “calls upon” Iran not to test any ballistic missiles “designed to be nuclear capable”, but ballistic missiles cannot be separated from the nuclear issue because they are the primary launch platform for any nuclear, chemical or biological warhead.
Moreover, given Iran’s threat this week to abandon limits on its uranium stockpile, Europe should be extremely concerned with this danger on its doorstep!
However, the sole focus on nuclear weapons ignores other issues critical to Europe’s security. Indirectly, Iran’s arms exports to groups in Yemen and Syria do untold damage to the work of European allies. The United States have already pulled themselves from JCPOA due to its failure to address the continued Iranian interference in regional conflicts, while the EU has not sufficiently realigned its position to help Washington.
Likewise, the IRGC, with its extensive links to Hezbollah, has not received the criticism from Brussels that is necessary. While Federica Mogherini “urges Iran to continue to implement its commitments under the JCPoA in full as it has done until now and to refrain from any escalatory steps”, arms of the state act with impunity, undermining the EU’s authority and the security of its citizens.
The latest threats from Iran have shown that even the EU’s limited pursuit of the anti-nuclear objective has ended in failure. Whatever the initial intentions, for the past five years the EU’s policy on Iran has been utterly misguided. Europe must accept partial responsibility for the ongoing breakdown of JCPOA. While the threatening and bombastic style of the US Administration has undoubtedly strained relationships and heightened tensions, Europe’s approach throughout this process has been far too gentle.
For a bloc supposedly determined to consolidate and expand its global soft power and influence, EU leaders have been too afraid to act decisively, crippled by the fear that Iran would pull out of the deal. Inaction has allowed a vacuum in which the Iranian regime can freely mark its own path. By tiptoeing around the regime, Europe has undermined its own security goals.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy from all of this is that the younger, liberalising generation of Iranians may now become disillusioned by the failure of European leaders to provide regional stability. Such an issue, should tensions escalate into violence, will echo through to Europe’s youth further down the line, through the simple question “why did we not act?”.
As the EU looks at the escalating situation in the Persian Gulf, it must recognise the failings of its own approach to Iran. Allowing the regime to assert regional dominance for the past five years without significant pushback makes Brussels culpable in this latest crisis.
Time still remains to avoid further long term regional instability. The EU needs to act with the US, instead of washing its hands of the problem. Further inaction will only lead to more insecurity and far greater danger to Europe on its doorstep.