Iran-European Union relations have soured with claims Tehran has supplied Russia with armed drones used in Ukraine, although the EU is not yet expected to agree new sanctions.

Arriving in Luxemburg Monday for a meeting of EU foreign ministers, Josep Borrell, the EU foreign policy chief, said Europe would look for “concrete evidence” over reports that Russia had used Shahed-136 drones in recent weeks. The Washington Post backed up Ukrainian claims Sunday citing US and “allied” officials speaking anonymously.

The Washington Post cited “an intelligence assessment shared in recent days with Ukrainian and US officials [that] contends Iran’s armaments industry is preparing a first shipment of [surface-to-surface] Fateh-110 and Zolfagher missiles…” Reuters reported Monday its reporter had seen pieces of a drone bearing the words ‘For Belgorod,’ presumably referring to Saturday’s gunning down of 11 Russian trainee soldiers 40km north of the Ukraine border.

There have been differences within the 27-member EU over the Russia-Ukraine conflict over the extent of sanctions against Moscow, which continues to supply gas and oil to many European states. Denmark’s Foreign Minister, the Social Democrat Jeppe Kofod, called Monday for the EU to take “concrete steps” in response to Russian attacks on Kyiv Monday morning, with Reuters reporting at least three deaths. “Iranian drones are used apparently to attack in the middle of Kyiv, this is an atrocity,” Kofod said.

France has argued that Iran supplying drones to Russia would violate United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement. Paris bases its case on the non-binding, informal Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) agreed by 35 states including Russia.

As signatories to the JCPOA, both France and Germany have been involved in the talks aimed at reviving the agreement, which the US left in 2018 prompting Iran to expand its nuclear program beyond JCPOA limits. The leeway for new European sanctions has been reduced by decline of Europe-Iran trade given European companies’ fear of US action against them under the ‘maximum pressure’ sanctions Washington introduced on leaving the JCPOA. Nonetheless, Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn Monday it was “no longer” enough just to extended the existing list of sanctioned Iranian individuals.

Iran denies supplying weapons to Russia. Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said Saturday – in comments made by telephone to Portuguese foreign minister Joao Gomes Cravinho – that Tehran believed “the arming of each side of the crisis will prolong the war.” The US has sent Ukraine $16.8 billion in aid, mainly in weapons, and the EU $2.5 billion, although Washington is denying Ukraine more advanced weapons so as to avoid escalation. Washington has said it wants to degrade Russian capacity as its stocks of Cruise and other missiles diminish.

‘Inconsistent behavior’

Comments made Monday by Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani reflected a deteriorating tone in EU-Iran relations. Kanaani highlighted what he said was “inconsistent behavior” by the French in suggesting there was “good and bad terrorism” and in condemning “disturbances” and “labor strikes” in France but welcoming them in Iran.

Kanaani portrayed Iran as an “anchor of stability” in a region where many countries – he cited Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria – “fell into chaos and were exposed to terrorism and foreign attacks.” The spokesman said that an arson attack on an Iranian school in Hamburg Thursday showed a failure to provide security for “Iranian diplomatic places.” He said there was a “bitter irony that the countries that export millions of dollars of arms to one side of the war [had] started a propaganda war against Iran.”

Kanaani stressed that while new EU sanctions would lead to “reciprocal reactions” from Iran, “the path of negotiations” was separate. The EU has coordinated efforts to revive the 2015 agreement, both in meetings April 2021-March 2022 in Vienna of all JCPAO signatories (China, France, Germany, Iran, Russia, the United Kingdom, with the United States taking part indirectly) and in subsequent bilateral contacts between Iran and the US. Kanaani also said Monday a prisoner exchange with the US was being held up by Washington’s insistence that the 2015 agreement be revived first.

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