European Union Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell

Borrell's Failing Diplomacy: EU's Troubled Relationship With Iran

Thursday, 03/21/2024

European Union Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell once again finds himself embroiled in a diplomatic battle over Iran sanctions, as revealed exclusively by the Wall Street Journal.

Amid escalating tensions in the Middle East, including Iran-backed Houthi attacks on cargo ships in the Red Sea and the ongoing conflict in Gaza, France and Germany last month advocated for targeted sanctions on Iranian entities supporting regional militias. However, Borrell was hesitant to support such measures.

Borrell’s refusal reflects his unwavering position on Iran, seemingly prioritizing diplomacy time and time again.

The recent revelation of internal discord within the EU perhaps also underscores criticism by many experts – and Members of the European Parliament – who allege that Europe’s Iran policy of the last decades has failed.

In the months leading up to widespread anti-regime protests in Iran, Borrell fervently advocated for salvaging the nuclear deal. He contended that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) imposed stringent limits on Iran's nuclear pursuits, offering economic incentives in return for the lifting of sanctions imposed by the US, EU, and UN.

In August 2022, Borrell confidently announced the completion of a "final text" aimed at resurrecting the nuclear agreement, pending approval from Iran and the US. In defense of his stance, he warned of dire consequences should the deal be rejected, emphasizing the potential for a perilous nuclear crisis and heightened isolation for Iran and its populace. Borrell underscored the shared responsibility to reach a resolution, urging for the agreement's conclusion.

But, with Iran's persistent breaches of its obligations and its reluctance to fully adhere to the terms, diplomatic efforts to resurrect the deal, faced significant challenges. Borrell's offer to Iran failed to advance the talks and the JCPOA seemed dead in the water by mid-September.

The critique directed at Borrell's efforts to resurrect the nuclear deal surpasses mere apprehensions about curtailing Iran's nuclear aspirations; it delves into a deeper analysis of the broader strategic implications. The shortcomings of the original JCPOA and subsequent negotiations are starkly apparent, as they do not appear to address Iran's expanding destabilizing endeavors across the region.

This failure underscores a fundamental flaw in the diplomatic approach, highlighting the urgent need for a more comprehensive and analytically sound strategy to effectively mitigate Iran's multifaceted challenges.

Ultimately, the last-ditch efforts to salvage the nuclear deal were ostensibly halted, coinciding with the Iranian regime’s ruthless crackdown of nationwide protests in 2022/2023 and Tehran’s subsequent drone sales to Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.

As Borrell witnessed the stark reality of Iranians risking their lives in street protests – their chants were not against international sanctions but rather for the downfall of the regime.

This pivotal moment should have prompted the EU and the West to reassess their Iran policy. Yet, disappointingly, such strategic recalibration was noticeably absent from their response.

“The EU’s Iran policy of the last 44 years has failed - and it’s your job to think about new policies. Stop meeting regime representatives and start meeting the many different people that advocate for a free Iran,” MEP Hannah Neumann told Josep Borrell a year after nationwide protests first broke out.

While the EU rolled out rounds of sanctions against the regime in response to its brutality against protesters and its role in aiding Russia – it stopped short of listing the Islamic Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) as a terrorist entity.

Despite persistent demands from the Iranian diaspora, the European Parliament's decisive resolution urging the EU to act, and a bipartisan coalition of over 130 US Congress members advocating for the same, the EU remained steadfast in its refusal to designate the IRGC as a terrorist entity.

The EU policy chief insisted that such a move is not possible until a European court takes judicial action against the IRGC.

That turned out not to be accurate, with many experts explaining the pathways to list the IRGC.

In December 2023, German newspaper taz also revealed that the EU’s decision not to list the IRGC was attributed to legal constraints – specifically citing a legal opinion provided by the European Council's Legal Service.

That confidential legal opinion challenges the government's position on the matter. It suggests that while the legal basis for listing the IRGC as a terrorist organization may not be met based on two US court decisions, there are other potential grounds for such a listing that have not been explicitly ruled out.

The lingering question persists: Why has the IRGC not been listed despite ample legal grounds and a chorus of voices urging its inclusion?

Despite asserting a "clear change" in the EU's relationship with Iran due to sanctions following the protests, Borrell continued to stress the imperative of keeping diplomatic channels open.

Meanwhile, Iran's brazen aggression has persisted unchecked on numerous fronts, systematically eroding regional stability.

After Hamas's incursion into Israel on October 7 last year, resulting in 1,400 Israeli casualties – reports surfaced regarding Iran's role.

While there is debate over whether Iranian security officials assisted in planning and approving the attack, Iran’s long-standing support and financial backing of Hamas are indisputable.

This year, amid the war in Gaza, Borrell warned that the Middle East “is a boiler that can explode”.

“Everybody should try to avoid that the situation becomes explosive,” Borrell said before chairing informal talks among EU foreign ministers in Brussels.

From actively aiding Russia's invasion of Ukraine, empowering Hamas before its deadly assault on Israel and sowing chaos in the Red Sea by backing the Houthi rebels – Iran's influence and undeterred actions have proven catastrophic.

All the while, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has added cause for alarm over Iran's nuclear ambitions, admitting that its lost “full knowledge” of Tehran’s program.

In the face of such perilous circumstances, one is compelled to ask: if this does not qualify as an explosive situation, then what does?

Borrell's steadfast dedication to diplomatic engagement with Iran disregards the stark reality that even if containing Iran's nuclear program were achieved, Tehran’s destabilizing actions will persist regionally and globally.

The European Union's persistent struggle to formulate a cohesive and impactful strategy toward Iran only exacerbates instability in the region.

The pressing inquiry remains: how can Europe effectively counter Iran's disruptive conduct to preserve regional stability, halt its perpetration of human rights violations against Iranians, and safeguard its own interests in the Middle East?

It seems evident that Borrell ought to prioritize crafting a fresh strategy for the EU's dealings with Iran. Persisting with outdated and ineffective methods will only prolong instability.

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