Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and US President Donald Trump. Photo: Reuters
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and former US president Donald Trump were bitter rivals. Photo: Reuters

It may sound a bit strange to US President Donald Trump, but the European Union views Iran as a pillar of stability in the geopolitically turbulent Greater Middle East. No wonder the EU is unwilling to modify the United Nations-sponsored deal on Tehran’s nuclear program, or support a traumatic regime change in the country.

Needless to say, this is at odds with the Trump agenda. Last Friday, the US president suspended nuclear-related penalties on the Islamic Republic for another four months, but with a caveat. He said the US would withdraw from the nuclear pact if EU signatories did not agree to fix its “disastrous flaws.”

Signed by Iran and six world powers (the United States, China, Russia, Germany, the United Kingdom and France) in 2015, the accord is designed to curb the military dimension of Iranian nuclear activities in return for sanctions relief.

Trump wants a supplemental agreement containing permanent restrictions on Iran’s uranium enrichment (current limitations expire in 2025) and the imposition of new penalties if the Islamic Republic develops or tests long-range projectiles. He says the adoption of these measures would prevent Tehran from making progress toward a nuclear weapon.

A cornerstone of EU’s foreign policy

An EU spokeswoman said last weekend that the European grouping had taken note of Trump’s words and would assess with member countries their implications. Previously, during a meeting with the foreign ministers of the UK, Germany, France and Iran, EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini had reiterated the bloc’s commitment to the full implementation of the nuclear agreement.

Despite Europeans having from time to time voiced concerns about Iranian rearmament, Mogherini had also rejected Trump’s argument that the nuclear issue and Tehran’s ballistic-missile development were “inseparable.”

The EU has frequently emphasized that the Iran nuclear deal is working. This vision is shared by China and Russia, which have no intention of negotiating a new pact. The European bloc believes international constraints on Tehran’s nuke activities are bolstering security in West Asia and, by extension, in neighboring Europe.

Just like Beijing and Moscow, European countries see Iran as a promising market and are eager to increase their trade ties with it. In particular, the EU aims to boost energy supplies from the Middle Eastern country to reduce its dependence on Russian oil and gas.

What’s more, the Iran nuclear accord is used by the EU to project its diplomacy on the world stage. The European grouping chairs the international commission monitoring the pact’s enforcement. In practice, this is the only venue where Brussels can prove its global outreach – a detail that evidently escapes President Trump.

Reforms, not revolution

As the Europeans link Iranian internal stability to their own security, they will not join Trump in supporting popular upheavals in Iran, unless Tehran starts crossing humanitarian red lines by committing atrocities.

The EU took a cautious stance during recent mass protests in Iran. In a statement on January 2, Mogherini called for all sides to refrain from violence and freedom of expression to be guaranteed. She added that the EU would monitor the internal situation in the country. It is worth noting that when the EU foreign-policy chief speaks on behalf of member states, it does mean that these want to keep potential trouble at bay.

The EU is concerned that Iran could become yet another failed state. The chaos the ‘Arab Spring’ brought to Libya and Syria – which the Western camp must be partly blamed for – has left Europe disenchanted

The EU is concerned that Iran could become yet another failed state. It was initially a supporter of the Arab Spring protests seven years ago. However, the chaos they brought to Libya and Syria – which the Western camp must be partly blamed for – has left Europe disenchanted. And the same goes for the current turmoil in Tunisia, the only Arab country where a change of course based on democratic values seemed to be succeeding.

In the EU’s calculus, Iran’s destabilization would lead to the formation of a corridor of instability stretching from Afghanistan to Syria, also including Iraq. Europeans are working to prevent this from happening, given that thousands of refugees, along with weapons, drugs and, more important, radical militants already flow into the European continent from war-torn countries in the region.

The EU and its leaders do not love the Islamic Republic. But they think that a regime change in Iran based on political reforms, rather than violent revolution, is in the best interest of Europe. Against this backdrop, it is quite clear that Trump’s Iran-bashing strategy is not a good fit for the EU’s post-Arab Spring incremental approach.

Emanuele Scimia

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He has written for Asia Times since 2011. His articles have also appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, The National Interest, Deutsche Welle, World Politics Review and The Jerusalem Post, among others.