Europe Eyes Further Cooperation with Iran under Rouhani

By Przemysław Osiewicz | Scholar - The Middle East Institute | Jun 20, 2017
Europe Eyes Further Cooperation with Iran under Rouhani

European leaders welcomed the re-election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani with a sigh of relief. The European Union’s foreign affairs chief, Federica Mogherini, congratulated Rouhani and highlighted the high electoral turnout. It is worth noting that both Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, and Mogherini had developed a good working relationship with Rouhani in face-to-face talks during the Iranian president’s first term.

As far as Brussels’ expectations are concerned, the full implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (J.C.P.O.A.)—the nuclear agreement Iran signed with world powers in July 2015—remains a key political priority for the E.U. diplomatic service. Rouhani seems to guarantee that, at least for the time being, and is seen in Europe as a reliable partner. Obviously, the E.U. is neither willing nor ready to renegotiate the nuclear deal as suggested by some representatives of the current U.S. administration.

Moreover, European institutions don’t see any need for an introduction of new non-nuclear sanctions, as suggested by some members of President Donald Trump’s entourage. While European powers do not support new sanctions against Iran, they closely watch Iran’s role in the region. The regional order, peace and stability in the Middle East remain significant, especially to key member states like France, Italy, and Germany. If Iran or its proxies cross any red line, for instance, direct engagement in the Yemeni conflict, or any hostile actions against the Gulf Arab states, Brussels may be open to the Trump administration’s suggestions. Yet, for now, everything indicates that the E.U. would rather focus on cooperating with Iran on such issues as terrorism and refugee crisis.  

So far the E.U.-Iran cooperation on the refugee crisis has targeted Afghan refugees. In the framework of this partnership, initiated in 2002, the European governments fund various projects related to the so-called undocumented refugees. Both sides exchange information on migration management and flows. It is estimated that up to 2 million Afghan refugees are hosted in Iran alone.[i] Obviously, it is in the interests of the European Union to provide these people with assistance in Iran rather than let them settle in Europe. In 2017, the E.U. provided Iran 10 million euros for essential assistance, including food security and emergency education to out-of-school children.[ii] This collaboration is likely to continue given the worsening situation in Afghanistan.  

In case of counter-terrorism cooperation, the first ever ISIS-claimed terror attacks on Iranian soil of June 7 only proved that bilateral actions against the jihadist threat are needed now more than ever. In 2016, both the E.U. and Iran agreed to promote regional peace, security, and stability. The agreement may result in firm action against ISIS and other jihadist groups that pose a threat to both European and Iranian security. It should be underlined that the E.U. and Iran already cooperate on such issues as anti-money laundering and countering financing of terrorism.

As far as economic reasons are concerned, E.U. imports from Iran increased 334.8 percent and its exports by 27.8 percent in 2016 alone.[iii] France and Italy, in particular, seem to have gained the most since the signing of the J.C.P.O.A. and the removal of most nuclear-related sanctions on Iran. Even if some tenders and contracts are still blocked by existing U.S. sanctions on Iran, both the French and the Italians are already profiting from closer cooperation with Tehran. French companies such as Total, Airbus, Peugeot, Renault from France as well as Italian giants Enel, Eni, Danieli, Vinci have all signed their contracts with Iran since 2015.

Yet Rouhani’s second term may become a real breakthrough. On the basis of the joint statement of April 2016, the E.U. is likely to improve banking cooperation, plan some investments under the umbrella of the European Investment Bank, cooperate in a variety of sectors, and build on expertise in the field of SMEs.[iv] The E.U. also supports Iran’s membership in the World Trade Organization, and its integration in the world economy.

Rouhani’s victory means that the E.U. will be able to strengthen its soft power, and cultural diplomacy in Iran. European states already contribute to poverty elimination in the country, and the European Commission has also supported various social and development projects in the framework of the Global Allocation in favour of Iran, Iraq, and Yemen. Iranian students also have an opportunity to study at universities in all E.U. member states within the Erasmus Mundus Salam Project—59 Iranians were awarded E.U.-funded scholarships in 2017 only.[v] All such initiatives result in greater trust and understanding. It seems unlikely that the E.U. would cut all these funds and cancel constructive educational programs just to please the current U.S. administration. 

The Trump administration will therefore find it difficult to receive European support to isolate Iran. Both the E.U. and its leaders are satisfied with the election outcome, and continue to place big hopes with Rouhani’s second term in office. As long as Iran observes the main provisions of the J.C.P.O.A. and does not cross any red lines in the region, the situation will not change. Those who call for Iran’s isolation might, instead, find themselves isolated by international community.


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