Since the beginning of the 21st century, the relationship between the EU and Iran has encompassed different phases derived from the shifting roles of both actors in the MENA region. The US withdrawal from the JCPOA, hand in hand with the re-imposition of sanctions, left the long-negotiated deal fatally wounded and the European countries seeking a way to ward off those amongst their businesses operating in Iran. In this context of uncertainty and mistrust, EU member states developed different levels of engagement with Tehran. Spain, a country that had based its bilateral relation on commercial transactions mainly derived from oil, had been timidly looking to diversify its economic opportunities in the country. In the aftermath of the end of the JCPOA, Spain should recalibrate its strategy and encompass it in a wider regional vision, capitalizing on existing interests and strengths. A post Covid-19 reality calls for re-addressing the current collaboration channels between Iran and Spain, as well as for Madrid's further engagement in EU initiatives regarding the MENA region.
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2017 came as a turning point for Iran’s relations with the West. The JCPOA lost one of its principal signatories: the US, under Donald Trump’s administration, decided to turn back its policy vis-à-vis Teheran, discarding over a decade of joint diplomatic efforts with the EU, Russia and China. Instead, Washington embraces today a policy of so-called “maximum pressure” that aims at choking Iran both economically and diplomatically through re-imposing extraterritorial sanctions. Even though the US maximum pressure campaign is fruitful in its intention to isolate Iran economically, it has not shaped the political context of power in the country. Quite the opposite, for it has reinforced an ultra-hawkish narrative by the Ayatollahs whereby Iran is under siege and there is a need for a belligerent posture.
Once again, the EU and the US nowadays follow seemingly opposing strategies towards Iran. While the Trump administration has already enforced maximum pressure, EU countries lag behind in articulating an integrated policy, besides preserving what has become an inoperative deal, hand in hand with a somewhat disquieting inability to protect its firms from US sanctions. On 31st March 2020, more than a year after its announcement, INSTEX managed its first transaction related to the export of medical goods from Europe to Teheran. While little information has been made public, media has unveiled that the sale was worth €500,000 – utterly far behind the needs of the Islamic Republic.
Spain and Iran have historically sustained a transactional relationship mainly hinging on economic factors, despite the interest and willingness from the Iranian side to deepen the bilateral relationship. Spain was part of the JCPOA discussions through the EU but has never been one of the most active European states when dealing with Teheran. Spain has typically let other EU members take the lead, while at the same time consistently endorsing diplomatic engagement with Iran as the most sustainable and long-lasting solution for the multiple crises. Although Madrid has given its support to all UN sanctions against Iran, this stance has not prevented Spain from being one of the most outspoken countries against the imposition of further sanctions on the country. Spain’s discreet stance towards Iran has not been reciprocated, and Tehran has been invariably invested in forging a stronger relationship, beyond economic interests, with Madrid.
Managing European internal divisions through a more flexible attitude will be crucial to all EU members, but mainly to Spain. If anything, the country has a chance to position itself as a decision-maker inside the EU and a valuable channel to deepen the relationship between the EU and Iran. Commitment to diplomacy and capacity to protect its interests will be seen as a strength both within the EU and outside the block. Spain has a unique opportunity to reckon its position inside the EU if it actively participates in European initiatives regarding Iran and continues its dialogue with the country. While there is little room for manoeuvre from Spain on its own, actively supporting and becoming part of INSTEX -that has now proven useful in allowing transactions to proceed- and maintaining a permanent dialogue with its Iranian counterparts through alternative channels could effectively benefit the relationship of both countries. Advancing its relationship with the Islamic Republic could be encompassed in a wider strategy to raise Spain’s profile inside the EU’s political core group towards the region. Given the closer ties of other Western European countries with GCC countries, Spain should promote its role as an actor capable of maintaining constructive relationships with all sides, not to be left aside from future engagement initiatives.
When it comes to the EU as a block, addressing issues with Iran cannot be regarded as a duty of Brussels solely. Engagement with Teheran should be perceived across the globe as part of a broader agenda to de-escalate tensions in the region and to enhance prosperity for the people. Therefore, the EU should not assume the burden of this aim on its own. The EU needs to invite more countries to join the multilateral approach in the dialogue with Teheran. Russia and China are relevant for the development of the region, but India, Japan and South Korea must be brought to the table as well. These three countries have economic ties with Iran and were painfully hit by US sanctions. Their inclusion would tackle three important points: signalling the EU’s compromise to find a comprehensive solution, bringing closer traditional US allies who already have a fluent communication with both Iran and the EU, and weighting down the EU's constant need for China and Russia to support its deeds in regard to Iran. Should this offer materialise, the EU could rely on three countries that maintain strong bilateral relationships with MENA countries and share the EU’s interest for a peaceful and self- dependent future in the area.
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