By Shahriar Sabet-Saeidi,
Europe Affairs Analyst
Source: Iranian Diplomacy (IRD);
translated by Iran Review.Org
The belated, albeit very important letter written by the British Prime Minister [David Cameron] to the new President of the Islamic Republic of Iran [Hassan Rouhani] can be viewed from two important standpoints. Firstly, sending such a missive at the highest political level from London at a time that official diplomatic relations do not exist between the two countries is not a common measure. Although the complete text of the message has not been made public, the part that has been made available contained the usual advisory and critical tone of regular diplomatic correspondence. In that letter, the British government has indicated its willingness to improve relations with Iran and this issue has not been even made conditional on further progress with regard to Iran's nuclear energy program, nor there was any condition regarding other policies adopted by the Islamic Republic. On the contrary, Cameron had underlined the West's need to cooperate with Iran over the country's nuclear energy program and the situation in Syria, which seem to be two important positive points. The second aspect of the letter and other similar missives sent from various European capitals is the anticipation of the White House's reaction to developments in Iran by European leaders. Apart from Iran's friends and allies, the United States was, perhaps, the first Western country to issue an official statement on the inauguration of the new Iranian president. The US measure was a good catalyst which served to take the usually cautious steps taken by the European countries to the higher level of official and positive messages the most important of which was sent to Iran by David Cameron. It would take a separate article to painstakingly discuss the importance of these measures and bilateral relations. However, what can be discussed here in summary is the general course of the European foreign policy toward the Islamic Republic and its relationship with the foreign policy of the United States.
A glance at the foreign policy approaches of the United States toward Iran will show that there has been a state of hostility between the two countries since the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979. In the jargon of international relations, hostility is usually described as a mutual state between two countries in which they may proceed as far as going to war with each other, and consists of political, economic, and military elements. All these elements have existed in relations between Iran and the United States as represented by mutual diplomatic efforts, military developments, and especially economic sanctions imposed against Iran by the United States during the past three decades. The existence of this sustained hostility has been known to both countries. Even the way that Tehran and Washington have interacted over the past three decades, both in their domestic policies as well as diplomatic and military attempts, has been based on this state of hostility. As a result, transient fluctuations and crises, or even positive signs and relative calm in bilateral dealings have been never able to bring about a radical change in relations between the two countries. Now, there is another opportunity for both countries to weigh the circumstances and do their best to get out of this hostile situation. Getting out of the current situation would not necessarily mean normalization of relations, but it would be a step forward toward further engagement. At the same time, the risk of returning to the critical conditions or sudden escalation of hostility as a result of international or even mutual developments - such as further complication of the nuclear case - is always a possibility. Therefore, the status quo is only a small window to a faraway horizon which may close at any moment.
The reason why Iran considers the United States a hostile government dates back to pre-revolution years when the United States offered its unbridled support for the Pahlavi regime against the Islamic Revolution. Such historical developments have provided the ground for the existing confrontation between the two sides which reached its acme after the Islamic Revolution with the occupation of the United States Embassy in Tehran. The US government's support for the [former Iraqi dictator] Saddam Hossein's regime in its war against Iran, appropriating a budget to confrontation with the nascent Islamic Republic, imposing various kinds of sanctions against Tehran, supporting anti-revolutionary and terrorist groups, and diplomatic faceoff with Iran in the course of various international developments are just examples of Washington's hostile treatment of Tehran. The main objective behind reminding these facts is to help the readers make an analytical comparison between Iran-US ties and Iran's relations with Europe. The relations between Iran and European countries have been marked with an amalgam of economic prosperity, political and legal crises, rapid improvement of relations, and sudden deterioration of bilateral ties. Throughout those ups and downs, however, certain communication channels have been kept open between the two sides. Therefore, despite temporary severance of diplomatic relations between Iran and the member states of the European Union or a certain member of that bloc, a relatively normal course of diplomatic interaction has been followed by the two sides. Some European countries like Germany or France have had more stable relations with Iran, especially due to the importance of their trade ties with the Islamic Republic, while others, such as the UK, have had more tumultuous relations with Iran. On the whole, however, the general perception of relations with Europe has been based on some sort of classic diplomatic interaction. Such incorrect perception of conditions governing Iran's relations with Europe has led to instability and inequality in those relations and resulted in squandering of many opportunities with regard to other countries, especially the United States.
A review of Iran's relations with Europe and an assessment of those relations using the aforesaid parameters, which were mentioned to define a hostile relationship, will reveal the bitter reality of the existence of hostility in Europe's relations with the Islamic Republic under a deceptive diplomatic shroud. During eight years of imposed war with Iraq, the European countries provided the highest degree of support for the Iraqi government by supplying it with various military materiel, especially substances to help the then Baathist regime to build weapons of mass destruction. The role played by France and Germany in this regard was especially prominent, so that, Germany, which traditionally enjoyed the highest degree of trade transactions with Iran among EU members, was also the main supplier of chemical weapons to Iraq. All other European countries have been also used as a regular basis by anti-revolutionary groups, especially Mujahedeen Khalq Organization, which have been freely active in those countries. Many of terrorist operations carried out by that group against Iran have been designed in those countries, perhaps, with the blessing of the European governments. Frequent condemnation of Iran in various international organizations under different pretexts such as the violation of human rights in addition to imposing broad sanctions against Iran especially the latest instances of unilateral sanctions, which have dealt severe blows to Iran's banking and economic system, are other examples of hostile policies adopted by the European countries against the Islamic Republic. To top this list, sudden disruption of diplomatic relations with Iran at various junctures has practically prevented those relations from remaining stable and rubbed Iran of the possibility to follow a clear-cut strategic plan vis-a-vis Europe.
Therefore, a simple comparison will show that relations between Iran and Europe have been characterized by all parameters of hostility. The European governments, however, have been cunning enough to adorn it with a drape of diplomacy which has been aimed at helping them to secure their own national goals and interests. Here, one may even go a step further by claiming that the hostility between Europe and Iran has been more severe than the United States hostility toward the Islamic Republic. As a result, damages done to Iran as a result of interactions with Europe outweigh damages done as a consequence of not having relations with the United States. The hostility between Iran and the United States has been always explicit and the leaders of both countries have frequently highlighted it. As a result, everything that happens in bilateral relations between Tehran and Washington can be construed and analyzed within the framework of this sustained hostility. On the opposite, since relations with Europe have been defined within a classical diplomatic framework, there has been some sort of confidence in relations combined with a certain degree of confusion in Tehran with regard to Europe. Consequently, the Iranian diplomats have been trying to mend fences and forging interaction with Europe for the past three decades, while in reality, all the elements of hostility have been embedded in Iran's relations with European countries. The main difference between the two cases is that Iran's diplomatic approach to the United States is based on hostility while in case of Europe the hostility is one-sided because it is only Europeans that are hostile toward Iran. As a result, this process has given rise to an erroneous analysis within Iran's diplomatic apparatus about the quality of interactions between Iran and Europe. To prove this allegation, it would suffice to once more review the above examples.
The support provided to Iraq in its war with Iran by the United States was mostly limited to intelligence and financial issues, but the European states supplied the Iraqi regime with advanced military equipment and helped Baghdad with its missile and chemical weapons programs. The United States put the name of Mujahedeen Khalq Organization on the list of terrorist groups in 1997, but the European Union only did that in 2002 after many years of pressure from the United States. Most sanctions imposed by the United States against Iran have failed as Iran lacks financial or commercial relations with that country. Therefore, during the past three decades, despite imposition of restrictive measures against the Iranian economy by the United States, the Islamic Republic was never faced with a major crisis. On the contrary, due to Iran's dependence on financial and trade systems of the European countries, smart sanctions imposed by the European Union against Iran have dealt the worst blows to the Iranian economy in the past few years and have practically cut Iranian banks off the international banking system. The above facts show beyond any doubt that the European Union has inflicted the highest degree of damage to Iran both in diplomatic and economic terms and has pushed Iran, one way or another, toward crisis and more dependence. Here, the goal is not to downplay the United States animosity with Iran or to highlight the necessity of stopping interactions with the European countries. The goal, however, is to shed more light on the foreign policy approach of the European Union to Iran and put renewed emphasis on the necessity of going over those relations and adoption of a new strategy by Iran.
There are two major elements in the European foreign policy which should be taken into consideration. The first element is the colonial background of most European countries, which unlike the United States, determines their relations with their past colonies or even those countries that emerged following the period of colonialism. Within this framework, there is usually a powerful unanimity among these countries. Therefore, since Iran is not a member of either former colonies or newly independent states, the European countries follow a complicated policy toward the Islamic Republic. The absence of a true will to engage in equal interaction with Iran and consider Iran as a strategic partner is the main obstacle which prevents balance in Europe's relations with the Islamic Republic. The second important element in those relations is that Europe is not independent in making foreign policy decisions, especially on Iran. The European countries are generally following suit with the foreign policy of the United States toward Iran. Therefore, despite having diplomatic relations with Iran they have been giving more twist to their foreign policy decisions when it comes to Iran. The Islamic Republic of Iran has been the main loser of this process because, for example as for Iran's nuclear dossier, Europe's doubts, hesitation, and extortionist policies have prevented the nuclear issue from being resolved. The main source of Europe's dawdling should be sought in Washington. By taking advantage of its relations with the United States and Iran, Europe has been playing the role of an extortionist interlocutor which has been trying to make the course of Iran's nuclear case tortuous and lengthy in order to prevent a final logical solution from being found for it. At the same time, the United States has even appeared more lenient than European countries at times. Recent statement which has been ascribed to the new Iranian President [Hassan Rouhani] is quite true that European countries have a master without whose permission, they cannot make a decision. More importantly, this bloc of countries is also very anxious lest the Iranian leaders would someday decide to engage in direct talks with the United States, thus, getting rid of this superfluous mediator while exposing its treacherous policy.
*Shahriar Sabet-Saeidi holds a Phd and an M.A in Middle East Politics from University of Durham in England and an L.L.B from Shahid Beheshti(National)University of Iran. He worked at the Institute for Political and International Studies and as assistant to Deputy Foreign Minister for Research and Education in Tehran from 1998 to 2002. He served as chief of staff and advisor to the Iranian Ambassador in France from 2002-2006. Shahriar Sabet-Saeidi is a founding member of the Institute of Iranian Studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland (2006-2008) and has also served on numerous advisory and editorial boards.
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