Iran’s Emerging New ‘Second Europe’ Strategy May Be Doomed

The Raisi administration’s apparent new approach has been tried before, unsuccessfully.

By , a postgraduate researcher in the School of Transnational Governance at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy.
Ali Bagheri Kani and Theodora Gentzis stand side by side in front of their respective countries' flags.
Ali Bagheri Kani and Theodora Gentzis stand side by side in front of their respective countries' flags.
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri Kani and Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Theodora Gentzis meet in Brussels on Oct. 27. Hadrien Dure/Belga Mag/AFP via Getty Images

Since taking office this August, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian have identified building ties with both Iran’s neighbors and countries in Asia as top foreign-policy priorities, along with continuing to strengthen the so-called Axis of Resistance in the Middle East. When it comes to policy toward Europe, the new Iranian leadership has talked less. But what they have said suggests they may be pursuing a new strategy. Unfortunately, it’s one that has been tried before, unsuccessfully.

Under former President Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s Europe policy consisted of three pillars. The first was the pursuit of economic interdependence with Europe aimed at deterring future financial restrictions against Iran and offsetting the costs of having to roll back its nuclear program. As former Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif noted shortly before leaving office, the deterrence strategy would have been successful had the foreign direct investment worth tens of billion dollars materialized and the country’s link to the global production process and value chains been developed as a result of the nuclear deal.

The second pillar was a very light version of “divide and rule.” Division between Europe and the Trump administration in the United States over the 2015 nuclear agreement gave Iran an opportunity to take advantage of European political and diplomatic leverage, particularly in the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations, against the American moves to kill the deal. In addition to keeping the nuclear deal alive (if only barely), the most prominent outcome of the European leverage against Washington was the lifting of the U.N. arms embargo on Iran at the apex of its hostility with the United States.

Since taking office this August, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian have identified building ties with both Iran’s neighbors and countries in Asia as top foreign-policy priorities, along with continuing to strengthen the so-called Axis of Resistance in the Middle East. When it comes to policy toward Europe, the new Iranian leadership has talked less. But what they have said suggests they may be pursuing a new strategy. Unfortunately, it’s one that has been tried before, unsuccessfully.

Under former President Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s Europe policy consisted of three pillars. The first was the pursuit of economic interdependence with Europe aimed at deterring future financial restrictions against Iran and offsetting the costs of having to roll back its nuclear program. As former Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif noted shortly before leaving office, the deterrence strategy would have been successful had the foreign direct investment worth tens of billion dollars materialized and the country’s link to the global production process and value chains been developed as a result of the nuclear deal.

The second pillar was a very light version of “divide and rule.” Division between Europe and the Trump administration in the United States over the 2015 nuclear agreement gave Iran an opportunity to take advantage of European political and diplomatic leverage, particularly in the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations, against the American moves to kill the deal. In addition to keeping the nuclear deal alive (if only barely), the most prominent outcome of the European leverage against Washington was the lifting of the U.N. arms embargo on Iran at the apex of its hostility with the United States.

The third pillar started after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Given the country’s relatively weak health infrastructure and overdue national response to the sweeping spread of the coronavirus in Iran, Zarif worried his administration’s poor management of the pandemic could turn into a humanitarian catastrophe, to the detriment of the government’s already diminishing legitimacy with the Iranian people.

He thus focused his administration’s diplomatic efforts on accessing the coronavirus-related medical capabilities of Europe and, more importantly, convincing European capitals to pressure the United States to lift sanctions and allow Tehran to receive $5 billion in loans from the International Monetary Fund, among other measures. However, since this kind of health diplomacy could have been seen as rebooting already fragile relations between Iran and Europe, the latter did not seemingly rush to meet Tehran’s urgent needs.

Against the backdrop of what they perceive as the Rouhani administration’s failed Europe policy, the Raisi government seems to be moving toward a different approach. In the majority of his phone conversations with and tweets addressed to European officials, Amir-Abdollahian has emphasized the passivity of Europe, particularly Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, toward maintaining the 2015 nuclear deal after the United States withdrew, and he has criticized Europe’s failure to fulfill the promise made the week after the U.S. withdrawal to preserve the deal and “maintain and deepen economic relations with Iran.”

Beyond the loss of economic benefits for Iran, the Raisi administration views Germany, France, and the U.K.’s inaction to salvage the nuclear deal as having damaged Iran’s sense of pride and respect. In conversations with the European officials, mostly from these three countries, the president and foreign minister have consistently called for “mutual respect,” a phrase that rarely appears in public readouts and tweets involving non-European officials.

The history of 20th-century Iran was filled with great powers’ invasion, occupation, coercion, and bullying, and the country’s political leaders are extremely sensitive about that. For instance, when the Russian ambassador to Iran this August tweeted a photo of himself and his British counterpart sitting in chairs similar to the ones sat in by Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin at the 1943 Tehran Conference, a time when Iran was occupied by the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union, it sparked nationwide outcry from all political camps in Iran and resulted in both ambassadors being summoned to Iran’s foreign ministry.

Senior leaders and decision-makers in Iran firmly believe that the 1979 Islamic Revolution put an end to foreign powers’ arrogance toward Iran and gave rise to the independence and international status they have long envisioned for the country. In the minds of Iran’s conservative president, his foreign minister, and generally the entire new political leadership and senior bureaucrats, the nuclear deal’s failure has tarnished Iran’s independence and stymied its national progress. The agreement itself is also seen as having required unbalanced concessions by Iran, which contradicts the sense of national respect the country has always expected from the world.

The new Iranian administration has thus begun to view the powerful trio of Germany, France, and the U.K. with deep suspicion and decided to pursue the idea that “Europe is not just the troika,” alluding to a policy known as “Second Europe.”

This policy was first articulated in the midst of the nuclear negotiations in May 2014, in a 258-page book by a group of thinkers close to the conservative camp and deep state in Iran who were skeptical of the future of the nuclear talks. It presupposed the fragility of a possible agreement between Iran and the great powers, and it thus urged the Rouhani administration to come up with a plan B for Iran’s future Europe policy.

The plan B they presented was the Second Europe policy. Less a concrete action plan than a set of propositions, it suggested capitalizing on the “fragmented” state of the European Union and the internal divisions over Europe’s Iran policy to build economic and political ties with key European states outside the aforementioned troika—namely Italy, Austria, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and Belgium—whose interests, in the view of the policy’s architects, could be aligned with Iran’s.

The Second Europe idea entered the public consciousness in the pages of the conservative newspaper Khorasan, whose then-editor in chief Mohammad Saeed Ahadian is now political assistant to Speaker of Parliament Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf. Since Amir-Abdollahian had been Qalibaf’s advisor on international affairs in the parliament for more than a year, there was enough time and incentive for Ahadian and Qalibaf’s other like-minded aides to sell the Second Europe idea to the foreign minister.

As Rouhani’s foreign-policy team at the time was busy concentrating on the third pillar of Iran’s Europe policy, proponents of the Second Europe approach seized the opportunity to advance their agenda.

Khorasan, which first put forth the idea in 2014, revived it in the headline of a piece urging the Rouhani administration to approach some key European states amid the COVID-19 fiasco in Europe and Iran. Quoting from a pan-Arab news agency story on how Russia was providing assistance to European countries hit hard by the pandemic as a way of expanding its influence there, the piece suggested that Zarif should similarly take advantage of the COVID-19 crisis “in the European countries, namely Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, etc., referred to as the ‘Second Europe,’ to share sympathy and provide them the required medical support aimed at reaping the benefits of better relations with certain European countries in the future.”

The Second Europe idea is, nevertheless, not new in Iran’s foreign-policy making, though the name itself and some approaches may differ. It was first tested in the 1980s amid the Iran-Iraq War. Policymakers at the time believed the likelihood of Iran developing trade ties with the highly industrialized states in Europe was far-fetched, since France, for instance, had immediately taken sides with Iraq, supporting Baghdad militarily and politically on the battlefield and at the U.N., respectively.

Thus Tehran strove to establish trade relations with other European countries such as Denmark, Finland, Sweden, and Switzerland, with the aim of preventing the bigger European countries from being able to coerce and dominate Iran economically and building allies in Europe that would push back against an anti-Iran agenda due to their economic interests in the country.

While the policy did end up improving Iran’s trade ties with Second Europe and, to some extent, with the rest of the European Community, it did not produce the political and diplomatic benefits Tehran had hoped for.

Though lessening, the threat to Europe from the Soviet Union persisted in the 1980s, and the importance of the U.S. security umbrella for Europe left no choice for the Europeans but to follow the United States’ lead on Iran, albeit with some tactical differences on how to confront Tehran. Concurrently, the tanker war was initiated, leading to a new Western European-led anti-Iran front in the Persian Gulf and a dramatic decrease in the volume of Iran’s oil and non-oil exports to Western Europe.

A similar approach was halfheartedly pursued again during the administration of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from 2005 to 2013. However, the shift of power from West to East that resulted from the rise of emerging economies in places such as China and India as well as the skyrocketing price of oil convinced the administration to pay less attention to the idea of Second Europe.

Meanwhile, the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 had led to a rift both within the EU and between much of Europe and the United States; the growth of the Iranian nuclear program gave European countries a timely incentive to mend ties with Washington and turned the potential nuclear crisis into a litmus test for the evolving EU Common Foreign and Security Policy and the 2003 European Security Strategy.

Despite the failure of those previous tests of the Second Europe strategy in the 1980s and 2000s, the Raisi administration apparently plans to repeat history. After returning from the Baghdad regional summit in late August, for instance, Amir-Abdollahian reiterated the core idea of the Second Europe policy: “There are different European countries that enjoy various capacities. Europe is no longer a homogeneous entity, and all Europe is not confined to the European troika.”

But although divergent perspectives on Iran among EU member states and other European countries may see a few of them possibly do business with Iran, nothing suggests Tehran will this time pass the test with flying colors and realize the Second Europe idea.

The world has certainly changed compared to the 1980s and 2000s. But what hasn’t changed is the long-standing animosity between Tehran and Washington. The new policymakers in Iran should bear in mind that the Iranian post-revolutionary “West minus the U.S.” doctrine is incompatible with the current realities in the Western world. A number of Second Europe countries now perceive threats at home and in their neighborhood that demand more U.S.- and NATO-led initiatives to counter them, while others are committed to the trans-Atlantic partnership and acting in line with EU policies.

Therefore, it’s unlikely any European country, including those of Second Europe, will be capable or willing to turn the tide by engaging with Tehran.

Mahmoud Javadi is a postgraduate researcher in the School of Transnational Governance at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. Twitter: @mahmoudjavadi2

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