At the Munich security conference in mid-February, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Zarif, took to the stage to give an impassioned plea for the European Union to do more to save the Iran nuclear deal. Public patience in Iran, he noted, was fading. If the European Union was really interested in saving the deal, it would have to do more. “Europe,” said Zarif, “needs to be willing to get wet if it wants to swim against the dangerous tide of US unilateralism.”
What he did not say – and what became shockingly apparent just over a week after his remarks, when he suddenly resigned – was that there was a lack of patience within the political leadership in Tehran as well, and that Zarif was in danger of losing the argument. His resignation was not accepted by Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, and the long-time face of Iran’s diplomacy went back to work a day later.
Yet Zarif’s brief resignation and return is a warning for the European Union. If the bloc, and in particular the three countries most engaged on Iran – Germany, France and the UK – are serious about making the nuclear deal work even without the United States, they are going to have to do more, and swiftly. Those inside Iran who believe the EU are credible partners are fading from the scene.
Across the Arab world and within Washington, there is widespread suspicion about Iran’s behavior and its undisguised desire for regional influence. The Arab region, in particular the Gulf, and the US, believe the nuclear deal negotiated under Barack Obama has only rewarded Iran, and note its foreign involvement in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen has not been curbed.
The European Union, although it has expressed reservations about Iran’s behavior, has instead taken the view that keeping the nuclear deal is the best mechanism for maintaining some leverage over the regime. In order to keep the deal going, Germany, France and the UK in January created a special purpose vehicle that would allow European companies to sell medicine, food and agricultural products to Iran in return for oil. The purpose of INSTEX is to shield European companies from US penalties for evading sanctions.
The result is a real split between the US and the EU. The US administration has taken such a hard line on Iran that there is a significant risk that Washington will not simply accept the shield of the payment channel, and will instead actively seek to target big companies and banks that use it with punitive fines. For major companies that work with the US, that is a risk they may not be willing to take.
Yet there are risks the other way, too. Because while the details of INSTEX are complicated and technical, there is a political dimension to the mechanism. Most of all, the Iranian public has to believe the deal is beneficial.
That was Zarif’s point in Munich: he said that 51 percent of the Iranian public still backed the deal, but that he needed the EU to do more. Unsaid was that further steps by the EU would shore up the position of those inside the regime who were being pressured by hardliners – including, as it turned out, himself.
Doubts about the EU go all the way to the top. This week, a private speech by Iran’s Supreme Leader from the middle of last year was released, in which Ayatollah Khamenei appeared to cast doubt on whether Europeans would really help his country against US sanctions.
The central dilemma for the EU is how fast to move and how openly to defy the US, particularly with a mercurial president who has no great love for the EU’s institutions.
A delay could cause Iran to give up on the nuclear deal. But if the EU enables Iran to sell too much oil, the US might retaliate – potentially adding INSTEX itself to its list of sanctioned entities.
Moreover, even dealing with Iran doesn’t guarantee any change in behavior, it merely assures adherence to the nuclear agreement. Iran’s foreign ministry, as recently as March 4, reminded European countries of that, saying “we do not seek permission for our foreign policy.” In other words, INSTEX can only salvage the nuclear deal, it cannot have any impact on Iran’s regional involvement, which is the sticking point for the US and the Arab countries.
This is the EU’s essential balancing act, and Zarif’s resignation illustrates how little time remains. Those opposed to it – who gathered in Warsaw just before the Munich conference – are rallying. There are divisions within the European Union and between the EU and Arab allies.
If the EU is serious about charting a foreign policy course away from the US, it will have to do more, so much more that it may end up in open conflict with Washington.
But continuing to inch forward is not a viable strategy: as the past two weeks show, the public and political mood inside Iran is shifting, and by the time the EU has made a determined decision, all its supporters within Tehran may have faded away.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.