Transforming Iran’s Blighted Relations with Europe

As protests over the tragic death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman held by the morality police continue to sweep Iran for some time with people’s indignation over the perceived injustice showing no sign of subsiding, the trajectory of the Islamic Republic’s diplomatic posture appears to matter even less to Iranians than any other time.

The vaunted Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal that was built on the premise of normalizing Iran’s strained trade relations with the world and reversing its isolation has been withering since former U.S. President Donald Trump exited the deal in May 2018 and slapped onerous sanctions. The revival of the beleaguered agreement used to be a burning issue for millions of Iranians, particularly the tenuous middle class eyeing sanctions relief and a rehabilitation of their livelihoods. Today, many of them don’t care anymore.

The University of Maryland-Iran Poll survey results found in February 2021 that 88 percent of Iranians agreed on a return to JCPOA compliance provided the United States took the first step to ease sanctions. Even in a climate of heightened distrust, 51 percent of Iranians approved of the totality of the agreement when the poll was conducted, with 41 percent disapproving. Against the backdrop of the current protests centered on grievances about civil liberties morphing into the dominant narrative and supplanting economic discontent, it is not clear if the JCPOA still counts as a key question.

Toward the end of his tenure, Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s ex-president credited with bringing the nuclear talks to fruition and conceiving the JCPOA, griped about the deep state neutralizing his efforts to clinch a bargain with the new Biden administration. Javad Zarif, the foreign minister at the time, raised the stakes by revealing he was receiving signals that the incoming hardliners were hatching plots to stymie Rouhani’s successful resuscitation of the JCPOA so that they could earn the credit for a deal revival as soon as they consolidated power.

JCPOA: Ground into Dust?

But as President Ebrahim Raisi marks his second year in office, his administration’s insecurities and diplomatic inadequacies have forestalled a JCPOA restoration agreement with the United States, and with time, the original deal is being eviscerated of both its non-proliferation purpose and economic dividends for Iran. Tehran has squandered several months haggling over what has been negotiated previously and refusing to make basic compromises, and its interlocutors have already started brandishing baleful contingency plans.

The continued elusion of the deal revival, induced by the Iranian government’s handwringing and prevarication, has dashed hopes in the Western capitals that the Raisi administration is committed to achieve an understanding. Concomitantly, it is dawning on Iranians that the hardline president has framed a foreign policy hinged on the assumption that the sanctions are going to stay for the foreseeable future. The austerity measures adopted in the recent months explain how the leadership sees the future of the national economy and what sort of path it has charted for its overseas agenda.

It is quite likely the Raisi administration has given up on salvaging the atrophying nuclear deal and doesn’t treat the JCPOA as a priority anymore. This is at least evidenced by the lengthy interludes between different rounds of negotiations with the P4+1 and the slow-motion diplomacy of exchanging messages with the United States through intermediaries. This even as more days of Biden’s incumbency slip by—if he is a one-term president, it’s a racing certainty that his Republication successor will withdraw from a revived JCPOA immediately.

A jaded public that once pinned its hopes on the regeneration of the landmark agreement as a stimulus of their economic redemption is also expressing more radical demands on the streets of some 80 cities across the country, not least the abolition of the compulsory hijab mandate that has provoked the unrest. Shrugging off their deep-seated economic adversities, the protests continue to rage.

That said, even if Iranians, both the leadership and the public, have abandoned their craving for the JCPOA holy grail to quest other objectives, this prolonged period of precarity on the fate of the deal cannot endure. At least the Western parties to the deal will not sit back idly while Iran accelerates its sprint to new nuclear thresholds in contravention of the 2015 agreement.

Is it the End of the Road?

The official collapse of the JCPOA revival talks, whenever it’s declared, will usher in a new phase of convulsion in Iran-West ties. Inevitably, the United States and the European Union will initiate the process of introducing multilateral sanctions and escalation at the Security Council should be expected. With extra economic strangulation looming, not only will Iran’s four-decade-long dust-up with the United States kick up a storm, the dodgy relations with European Union will also relapse further.

These menacing scenarios can be avoided. Iran and the West can make a shared commitment to preempt an expectedly stormy future and pave the way for one that will be epitomized by synergy and co-action. Regardless of where the nationwide uprising is headed, there is going to be a next step in the course of Iran-West engagement that needs to be defined. If the past is any guide, Iran and Europe are perfectly capable of working together intimately in an ambience of goodwill. This means it is possible to deliver a future that is not marked by divergence.

People and Partnerships

Not so long ago, in 2017 when the JCPOA was still a functioning pact, Iran was the European Union’s 30th largest imports partner, overtaking Serbia, Azerbaijan, Australia, and United Arab Emirates, and its 29th largest exports partner higher than Argentina, Indonesia, and New Zealand in the ranking. An appetite has always existed for a symbiotic partnership in disparate realms of activity, ranging from energy ties, private sector joint enterprises, infrastructural investments, and an array of academic, cultural, and environmental ventures.

For years, speculations have been floating about the European Union opening an office in Tehran to shore up its representation and deepen ties. Even the Iranian authorities are on the record suggesting in 2016 that the bureaucratic procedures were being completed and the EU mission would be operational in months, implying there was no opposition to the giant leap in Iran-EU relations. The plans eventually fell through, and it wasn’t explained why the almost done plan unraveled.

People-to-people exchanges have consistently represented a vital pursuit connecting Iran and Europe. Although the official figures might be imprecise given how Iranians overseas identify themselves and their origins, the Islamic Republic’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has put the number of Iranians living across Europe at 1.84 million as of 2021. A large body of this diasporic constituency is made of academicians and students who are best placed to animate the relations and propel them forward.

With the cycle of cynicism that has been bred through the Raisi administration’s erratic, aggressive foreign policy, degenerating into a deadlock in ties with the West, talking about a thaw is not only idealistic, but also naïve. But what is incontrovertible is that the potential for Iran-Europe collaborations are unlimited, and it only takes prudence, pragmatism and recognizing the right priorities to unleash these possibilities.