Research studies

Iran and EU’s Chilled Relations: Would the Roles and Bonhomie Revive

by Dr. Muhammad Aslam Khan Niazi

Democratic Arab Center 


EU role in conflicts resolution is not only significant, it is vital. The organization is emerging as a vibrant body and an honest broker that aims at securing peace and stability without specific partisan geopolitical objectives. In the ensuing article I have argued, how Iran and EU relations unwind and for what reasons their journey to thriving mutual relationship has hit the snags. Despite its efforts to maintain the neutrality, the arena, Middle East, being so complex, remains a haunting challenge. Concurrent major moves that EU has made on principle, ordinarily should have been applauded but appear to have further constrained its ability. The narrative is complex and marred by tangled web of circumstances. Optimism should prevail; however, that EU would be able to contribute a lot to the global effort to sustain the paradigm of peace in Middle East and stay linked to Iran as well.


Geostrategic dimensions that Iran enjoys by virtue of its geography are a matter of envy. It is Middle Eastern country, hugs Central Asia, South Asia and maintains long Arabian Sea coast with ability to interdict every fifth litre of world oil which trickles through Strait of Hormuz that is one of the most, if not the most, significant strategic waterway in the world. To the north, Iran has Caspian Sea with unresolved status as it claims to be sharing exclusively with Russia on the merit of historic treaties though in post-Soviet era, several other littorals have come up. When one perceives the connotations of EU’s Wider Black Sea Region  perception that embrace the geographic entities beyond the Black Sea to the East/SE to include North and South Caucasus as well, by implications Iran can safely be considered as EU neighbour.
The sagacity would always demand to have the trajectory of Iran-EU mutual relations firmly anchored on respect and cooperation. However the obtaining level of trade and diplomatic relations is woefully chilled. EU accuses Iran of developing Weapon of Mass Destruction (WMD), citing International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) fears at successive intervals. Some observers in Iran now find total bias in EU stance, alleging that EU has also been coerced to follow US-Israeli agenda to punish Iran for issues away from IAEA scope but under the contrived pretexts of nuclear proliferation.
EU’s act of designating Hezbollah, an Iran’s ally, as terrorist group drew the leader’s response, “Nasrallah argued that the European decision stemmed not from EU values, but rather from “interests and pressures” exerted by Israel and the United States. Otherwise, Israel should have been placed on the same terror list.”  The development is a considerable setback to Iran, causing further traction on Iran-EU relations as well. Iran persists in insisting that its nuclear facilities are absolutely oriented towards the domain of technological pursuits of non-weapon usages. There are arguments and counter arguments, both sides raising some questions that have no ready answers.
Iran-EU Honeymoon and Spectre of Sanctions
Iran and EU had realised the inevitability of the need to establish exhaustive trade relations in early 90s. With emerging energy crunch and fast-track EU economies, there could not have been better option than to tap Iranian energy resources. In about two decades, Iran and EU were doing booming business. Iran had remained satisfied with EU neutrality which it cautiously pursued by not taking sides about thorny Middle East (ME) issues, invariably ending up at Israel and also engulfing US in the brawl.
Thus their trade graphs steadily swelled. “Iran ranks 7th in exporting crude oil to Europe and a ‘Eurostat report’ states that 27 European states imported 11.4 billion Euros of goods from Iran in the first nine months of the current year (2011)”.  As the Iranian revenues accrue mainly from oil and natural gas exports with meagre share of other country products, some also label it as rentier state. Thus the West’s ability to squelch nourishing of Iranian line of energy-based economy is far greater than the Iranian ability to evade the dent. In ordinary circumstances, while Iran may be proving herself as gutsy power, the sanctions bolt has certainly hit its economy hard.
The Equation Plummets
EU clamped economic sanctions on Iran on 23 January 2012 when the latest concern peaked about Iranian clandestine acquisition of WMD capability. The Council of European Union declared that it would levy embargo on Iranian exports, freezing all assets of Iranian Central Bank. However, the second blow of ‘SWIFT Sanction’ was even more deadly when, “On 17 March…SWIFT electronic banking network, the world hub of electronic financial transactions, disconnected all Iranian banks from its international networks…”  The EU has been persuading Iran to give up its Uranium enrichment venture that Iran did not oblige. Iran considers its sovereign right to develop Uranium stocks for ‘peaceful’ purposes when such pursuits are not out of the ambit of nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to which Iran is a signatory.
The sanctions bite has been visible and the plea to punish Iran is certainly impacting the Iranian masses when inflation is at peak as a result of massive devaluation of Iranian currency. As regards the drain on Iran economy, “The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that Iran’s shrinking oil exports earned $69 billion in 2012, down 27 percent from $95 billion in 2011”. And another source established that, “The International Energy Agency, a Western watchdog body, has estimated Iran lost more than $40 billion in export revenues in 2012, amounting to around $2.4 billion a month”.  The fact that Iranian exports have seen millions of barrel of decline daily means that sanctions have worked though at some cost to EU also.
EU has been posing some pertinent questions to Iran to address during series of negotiations which the Union thinks, remained in the blind alley, mainly because of Iranian intransigence. Iran not only challenges the legitimacy of IAEA reports that could not bring any concrete evidence during series of physical on-site inspections but also asserts that IAEA is spoon-fed by US and Israel when it raises clamour after they go back about the intentions of Iran. What is apparent, on the surface is the issue focusing on development of WMD and Iran’s suspected capability to cross nuclear threshold anytime soon. How does the nuclear issue unwind from the perspective of both sides?
Summation of the Issue
The major indicator that chills the spines of the analysts, and rightly too, is Iranian ability to operate the facilities of fuel enrichment plants (FEP), some clandestinely, despite being under IAEA nuclear safeguards. The one at Natanz, according to IAEA report of May 2011, is the major low enrichment facility that operates 53 cascades, containing 8,000 centrifuges to produce Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) to 3.5% level. IAEA report hints by implication that Iran technologically does face some impediments. “On 14 May, 2011, the 53 installed cascades contained approximately 8,000 centrifuges. The 35 cascades being fed with uranium hexafluoride, UF6, on that date contained a total of 5860 centrifuges, some of which were possibly not being fed with UF6.”  In other words, the facility was not operating to the optimal capacity. However, there is discernible ambiguity on part of IAEA inspectors also because their technical expertise should have prompted them for exploring the reason for a number of centrifuges that were ‘sleeping’.
The Agency did conduct physical inventory verification (PIV) meticulously that showed, out of 3734 kg of natural UF6 fed into the cascades since February 2007, a total of 3135 kg of LEU had been produced. Iran operates, as revealed by the latest report,  15 nuclear facilities and 9 locations out of facilities (LOFs) where nuclear material is generally used. Ordinarily these LOFs should have been the red rag, setting in a dangerous trajectory of events but thanks to IAEA officials who confirmed that all of them are located in hospitals. IAEA’s November 2011 report shows total of 54 cascades, an increase by one cascade over ‘May 2011 Report’ when 37 cascades were being fed with UF6 with marginal increase of two cascades from the previous 35 cascades reported. The total production score, after the team conducted PIV, from 15 October to 8 November 2011, stood at 4922 kg of LEU as against previous 3135 kg, thus resulting in an increase to the stock of LEU by 1787 kg. Adding two cascades in about six months shows, on one hand, that the work is in progress at steady pace but also on the other hand, that it is not being pushed on war-footing.
Besides, Iran has Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (PFEP) at Natanz where six cascades operate, mainly for research and development. Additionally, the Agency suspects that her Heavy Water Production Plant (HWPP) at ‘Arak’ appears to be in operational mode but access to re-inspect the facility has been stalled by Iran. The report adds, “Iran is obliged to suspend all enrichment related activities and heavy water related projects. Some of the activities carried out by Iran at UCF (Uranium Conversion Facility) and the Fuel Manufacturing Plant (FMP) at Esfahan are in contravention…”
Latest figures given by IAEA report of May 2013 are mind boggling. The report has it, “8960 kg (+689 kg since the Director General’s previous report) of UF6 enriched up to 5% U-235, of which 6357 kg (+383 kg since the Director General’s previous report) remain in the form of UF6 enriched up to 5% U-23512 and the rest has been further processed …324 kg (+44 kg since the Director General’s previous report) of UF6 enriched up to 20% U-235, of which 182 kg (+15 kg since the Director General’s previous report) remain in the form of UF6 enriched up to 20% U-23514…”  The holding of 20% HEU means that its indigenous stocks place Iran close to the essential minimum level of weapon grade capability, allowing Iranian scientists to proceed to the next phase of arming its program. Iran has also plausible explanation, maintaining that the purpose of enriching UF6 up to 5% U-235 is the production of fuel for its nuclear facilities and that the purpose of enriching UF6 up to 20% U-235 is the manufacture of fuel for research reactors.
IAEA concedes that its conclusions are based on the observations made during inspections. While these may confirm at the given point of time that Iran does not appear to be close to crossing nuclear threshold, the Agency has no yardstick to measure Iranian intentions. As an alternative, it has to rely on intelligence reports, satellite imagery and possible role of developed nuclear infrastructure in Iran that connect indirectly to Iranian urge for achieving Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) levels, bomb design configuration, trigger mechanism and developing long range means of ballistic delivery for adding nuance to her achievements. Thus, the military dimension of the Iranian nuclear venture may not exist if Iran’s version of compliance is translated. Conversely, an existential threat looming on the horizon may be a reality if sum total of the reported segments are morphed to evolve the nuclear arsenals’ contours. Therefore, in order to penetrate such an ambiguity, the IAEA contends, “Iran is requested to engage substantively with the Agency without delay for the purpose of providing clarifications regarding possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program…”
The account above does give the Iranian thrust line and a reason to the world to worry about. It also points that wavering Iran tends to seek possible redress of major ME issues by presenting bogey of nuclear threat to wear down the opponents. It would be naïve to assume that Iran is oblivious of the consequences it is likely to face. Other than economic sanctions, US and/or Israel could attack Iran to knock out its suspected capability though the attack option might generate global repercussions, spinning out of control of the powerful actors. However, in the meantime, Iran kept lashing, “Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressed the UN General Assembly Wednesday ‘to show to the world that my noble nation…has a global vision’ while simultaneously lambasting capitalism and Israel for the world’s ills.”
Intransigent Iran Wants to be Heard
What Iran expects from the West, particularly from EU whom it has been considering an honest broker that instead of threatening and intimidating Iran, the West should listen to its side of grievances as well. Unfortunately, the things have come to such pass that for Iran every irritant begins and ends at Israel, whether it is Palestinians’ issue, label of a rogue state, killing of its scientists, freezing of its bank accounts, threat of regime change, shooting down of its passenger airliner, stoking insurgency in Iranian Baluchistan, attempts to eliminate its allies, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Bashar al-Assad in Syria and destroying or damaging its civil nuclear industrial structures through cyber war.
Some observers do come out with such arguments that when you bleed country’s people and its leadership for decades by deploying all devices and means available, expecting them to be polite and amenable on dialogue table would be diplomacy-depredation of the worst kind. Reading some symptoms of flexibility from the initial overtures of President elect, Hasan Rouhani, US is sounding more belligerent even though Barak Obama’s administration has shown measured concern, “Congress is considering a new series of hard-hitting Iran sanctions on everything from mining and construction to the Islamic republic’s already besieged oil industry, despite concern from the Obama administration that the measures could interfere with nuclear negotiations.”
Conversely Israel takes Iran as deadly existential threat that challenges the very survival of the Jewish state. “Project Daniel boldly advises that Israel take certain prompt initiatives in removing existential threats.”  It therefore, considers its legitimate right to dilute every threat that poses to the state of Israel even if it has to adopt preemption strategy for which it needs no license, the act being its self-defense. Where international community is failing and EU makes a very potent chunk of it, these are the geopolitical expediencies of the world powers who resort to filtering crucial international issues through the spectrum of their national interests instead of merit whether it needs to blame Iran or Israel. Certainly, Iranian nuclear threat has not crystallized over the week-end but is result of years of lack of transparency of the nuclear club, looking away when the favorites punched NPT but some ‘patrons’ on NPT start pulling the noose when it was a country on the low scale of their liking.
It is also an approach-imbalance of not addressing the basic issues of colossal consequences which has resulted in intensive polarization among the powers who should have been otherwise guarantors of peace and stability on the planet. Iran’s nuclear issue, Syrian crisis, Lebanon standoff, Palestinian festering dilemma, denial of recognition of state of Israel and holocaust, hostile rockets lobbing on Israel, issue of return of Arab territories of pre-1967 war and Arabs/Iran insistence to declare ME as nuclear free zone for the same reason, even if approved by thumping majority in UN in favor of the grieved parties, would be killed at UNSC by one power or the other. In other words, despite the promise of prosperity when some economies are ascending the graph at the speed they never dreamed off, generally the world in 21st Century stands much more fractured and prone to conflicts.
Paradigm Complexity and Prospects
The EU attempts to woo Iran away from the trajectory of collision persistently for several years deserve a loud applause. Yet its joining of the sanctioning club led by US would need some debate. It is yet to be seen whether EU would follow the spate of new set of aggressive sanctions being propounded by US Congress to demolish Iran’s mining and construction ability after laying siege around its oil exports. Granting the influence to strong anti-Iran lobbies in Washington, in all probability they would attempt to trash entire range of recent Iranian positive gestures by labeling them as mere eye-wash to buy time. That would leave little justification for the plausibility of dialogues for the US administration and also for EU to view them otherwise.
One does not need to be genius to assess that when EU tended to coax Iran, it held no carrot for it because that carrot, Iran perceives is in firm possession of the ones who are more or less, until now, equally obdurate in their stance towards international contentious issues concerning Iran. This line of thought is perhaps adding to Iran’s reticence, particularly when, on crucial issues, it has some potent allies too. Emerging Iranian leadership, to succeed outgoing President Ahmadinejad after recently concluded presidential elections has hinted beyond doubt that it would be keen to address the issues that plague Iran. A source quoted, “Just a week before Iran’s election gatekeepers announced the presidential ballot, Rouhani said, one-on-one talks with Washington are the only way for breakthroughs in the nuclear standoff, given that the United States — as he put it — is the world’s “sheriff.”  However, the stage Iran has reached by now, gasping under wide array of sanctions including bank accounts freezes, would afford it a little maneuver space in the eyes of its public except for composite dialogues with US.
Now the question may arise, what role EU can play hereafter? Unfortunately, by using the only trump card of clamping economic sanctions, EU has caused dent to its ability to persuade Iran for securing any worthwhile concessions. As long as Iran aims at and pursues ‘cost-benefit approach’, it would be pertinent to assume that Iran knows, it has paid enough cost during  last about two decades of drubbing it received in various modes (also connect ILSA ). Therefore, Iran would seek more concessions with emphasis that all ME issues are taken up in tandem to reach at meaningful resolution rather than focusing only on its suspected venture to acquire WMD capability. EU is also handicapped by the reality that it cannot give Iran anything except trade and demand compliance of IAEA safeguards and meet inspections criteria. Iran is possibly well aware that that any dialogues progress with EU requiring some concession(s) from Israel would mean deadlock because EU has no clout with Israel.
Finding itself beleaguered, Iran soon hits a sensitive cord that also pleases all Arabs by linking to its proliferation issue the morality theme of achieving nuclear free zone in ME. Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) has something to say about a conference, scheduled in Helsinki. NAM strongly condemned the opposition of the US, Russia, Britain and the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to the conference that was originally scheduled to be held in Finland’s capital, Helsinki, in December, upon an agreement reached during the 2010 NPT Review Conference…It also urged the Israeli regime, the only non-signatory to the NPT in the Middle East, to destroy its nuclear weapons, place its nuclear facilities under the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) supervision and carry out all its atomic activities in accordance with international non-proliferation regulations.
In Iranian perception, her demand for denuclearized ME would be absolutely transparent and ethics based, more so when some joint sittings on the subject have been convened already. Such developments would certainly be dangerous snare for EU capability to intervene. Hence in the dialogue balance, if Iran is on one side, it cannot be the EU on the other side though Iran, before the EU sanctions had been more confident in doing business with EU and also ‘P5+One’ forum which was, barring China and US, predominantly European. However if Iran-US dialogues become feasible in the wake of any shift in the stance of Iranian hierarchy, US negotiator would manage elbow space to tie down Iran on dialogue table if convened and entice Iran with diplomatic charm. Where US is not likely to succeed is, once it would need final nod from Israel. Thus the success awaits miracles and if they are not happening, it would require the parties in dispute to keep their faith in the efficacy of talking-diplomacy minus traditional hurling of barbs which, until now, have been down pouring lavishly.
EU intentions and role do not need applause from Iran because over short span of time it has emerged as a proven organization. It is doing remarkably well in helping the countries to recover from the governance issues, bankruptcy and its efforts to insulate Europe including Western Balkan from the perilous future are well cited. While it has played her cards and finds itself with not so significant ability to influence any worthwhile issue with Iran, its indirect support shall remain crucial.
Iran must, even after it engages US, keep its window for EU open and the deliberations at appropriate diplomatic levels should go on. EU does not have the ability to push Israel but it can efficiently prompt US to play the role of an honest broker. Where US fails and follows partisan strategies, EU must intervene as a third umpire to trim US approach. Securing of cease fire during Russo-Georgian war (2008) proved EU’s peace restoring capability, perhaps more than even US.
Iran and Israel must know that smoke screens to mask the realities seldom help in 21st Century when the globalization has enabled human mind to stretch it to the farthest boundaries and thus penetrate the fog as if unknown were known. It is time that bluff game must end. It would afford considerable elbow space to perhaps all actors if Iranian nuclear issue is approached in the wider context of contemplated ME nuclear weapons free zone. This way, a long trail of ‘if’ and ‘but’ would stand excluded. EU should deploy its media support to soften Israeli and Iranian obstinacy by posing question to each of them that if Iran does not show any flexibility, why it should expect Israel or US flexible stance. Simultaneously, Israel be asked same way, why Iran should become flexible if Israel does not reciprocate.
Lingering conflicts or the threat of them must receive due attention in ME like EU is endeavoring in Europe and its peripheries. The Muslim world, the West, Iran and Israel have lot to learn from Iraq and Afghanistan war in the near vicinity, should resist earnestly being sucked into conflicts.
Iran needs to be heard and its legitimate grievances resolved. West must consider lifting sanctions as goodwill gesture to allow Iranian people to breathe. Iran has to alley international community’s apprehensions and presents its case in a manner that fosters peace and stability. State of Israel is a reality and it is Jews inviolable, inalienable sovereign right to exist peacefully within the territories mandated by UN on emergence of Jewish state. Concurrently, continued holding of captured territories in ME cannot be justified by any length of rhetoric. By addressing the main issues, peace would return to ME as a happy consequence. EU is in better position to persuade the actors for comprehensive dialogues even staying in the background and say no to threat of attack by US or Israel on Iran as vociferously as it is saying no to Iranian nukes.
(The article, written at the request of Prof Dr. Mahendra Gaur, Director FPRC, has been shortlisted for ‘Studies on Iran’, a country specific project of FPRC, New Delhi, India,
End Notes:
. EU peacemaking efforts and potential is amply reflected in a research article by the author, “Will the Black Sea Blow Up?”, ‘Eurasia Review’, Madrid/Spain, 4 July 2013,  accessible
. Elhanan Miller, “Hezbollah head asks why Israeli army not blacklisted by EU instead”, ‘The Times of Israel’, 24 July 2013, accessed
. ‘Iran-European Union Relations’ accessed at
. “Turquoise Partners Report”, Iran investment Monthly, Vol 6, No. 63 December 2012, accessed
. “Iran Economy Declines as Sanctions Bite”, United Press International (UPI), Washington DC, accessed at
.  The summation excerpts first appeared in the author’s article, “Fickle Peace and Devastating Middle East Nuclear Tangle”, The Journal of Central Asian Studies, Volume XX,  2011, No.1, University of Kashmir, Srinagar, J&K India, accessible at
. IAEA, “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards and Relevant Provisions of Security Council Resolutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Report: Gov/2011/29, 24 May 2011, 2
. IAEA, Implementation of the NPT Safeguards and Relevant Provisions of Security Council Resolutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Report: Gov/2011/65, 8 November 2011, 2
. Implementation of the NPT Safeguards and Relevant Provisions of Security Council Resolutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran, 6.
. IAEA, “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards and Relevant Provisions of Security Council Resolutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” GOV/2013/27, 22 May 2013, 3
. Ibid
. Implementation of the NPT Safeguards and Relevant Provisions of Security Council Resolutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran, p.10.
.  “Ahmadinejad Continues Tirade Against US and Israel in Final UN Speech”, T R N S (Talk Radio News Service), 26 September 2012, accessed
. “Congress Threatens New Iran Sanctions as Obama Gauges Flexibility of Incoming Leader Rouhani”, ‘The Washington Post’, Cliff Owen/Associated Press, 23 July 2013.
. L.R. Beres, “Israel’s Uncertain Strategic Future,” ‘Parameters’, US Army War College Journal, Spring 2007, 38
. Brian Murphy, “New Iranian President  Sees US as Only Way Forward in Nuke Talks”, ‘The Times of Israel’ 26 June 2013, accessed
. “Iran and Libya Sanctions Act of 1996”, though Libya is no longer in the loop, is the pioneer document, imposing sanctions against Iran, accessed
. “UN Conference on Nuclear Weapons-Free Middle East Cancelled-Non-Aligned Movement Expresses Condemnation”, ‘US Peace Council’, New Haven, USA, 13 July 2013, accessed
Dr. Muhammad Aslam Khan Niazi
A retired Brig Gen from Pakistan Army, served 32 years. A veteran of ‘1971 Indo-Pak War’ has been instructor in officers’ Pakistan Military Academy, commanded an Artillery Regiment in a desert formation for three years and Divisional as well as Corps Artillery, with two tenures in prestigious Military Operations Directorate, GHQ. Also twice served as ‘Director’ in GHQ. Holds first class Master’s degree in International Relations and PhD, acquired in 2002-2007 from University of Peshawar, Pakistan. Authored a book, writes frequently in national and international media. Has attended several seminars and conferences within the country and abroad on invitation. Travelled to Switzerland, UK, UAE, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Germany, US, Cambodia and Thailand. Is member of IFIMES Slovenia and on authors’ panel of ‘Eurasia Review’ Madrid/Spain. Lives in Lahore garrison, plays golf with 16 handicaps.

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