As Europe and Iran appear to be emerging from the first stage of the corona pandemic, all pre-existing problems are re-surfacing too.
Stringent US sanctions – opposed by the Europeans – helped exacerbate Iran's socio-economic malaise, but also allowed hardliners around the revolutionary guards to become stronger internally. Meanwhile, the plunge in oil prices has hit the Gulf's petro-monarchies harder than the already-squeezed Islamic Republic, threatening to fuel regional instability.
Going forward, the spread of the coronavirus throughout the Middle East constitutes a major challenge. Moreover, the dispute over the 2015 nuclear deal needs a resolution, as does the latent US-Iranian confrontation in particular in Iraq. Finally, a row over a UN arms embargo against Tehran, due to be lifted in October, is likely to intensify of over the summer.
Europe – that is the EU, its 27 member states and the United Kingdom – is not only directly affected by any further escalation, but also the only actor genuinely interested in a diplomatic solution.
It needs to regionalise its hitherto bilaterally focused Iran policy to adequately address these challenges.
To combat the pandemic at regional level, enabling humanitarian trade with Iran is of utmost importance. The country has become a corona hotspot due to the clergy's stubborn refusal to impose social distancing and to close religious shrines, but also because US sanctions create severe shortages of a medical imports. A variety of international actors, including the UN secretary-general, have called for a suspension of sanctions on humanitarian grounds.
The Europeans should bolster the trade of drugs, medical products, and foodstuff through their Instex barter platform. This could even be used to channel the $5bn loan that Iran requested from the IMF to battle the pandemic.
While Washington suspects Tehran to tap the funds to reinforce its regional clout, and thus opposed the request, going through the certified Instex mechanism would ensure that multilateral money reaches the right recipients.
Strengthening humanitarian trade would not only help neighbouring countries affected by a spread of infections due to travel from Iran. It would also work towards settling the dispute over Iran's nuclear program by allowing Tehran to return to the 2015 nuclear agreement. The fact that Iran responded to the US withdrawal two years ago with a gradual reduction of compliance with its obligations has in particular Israel and Saudi Arabia worried by Iran's already growing regional clout possibly being strengthened by the bomb.
However, the blame for regional escalation is widely shared among countries in the region. This can be seen in the years-long proxy wars from Syria to Yemen that have left the Europeans as helpless bystanders, just as much as the more recent US-Iranian tit-for-tat attacks on Iraqi soil.
Yet, a deteriorating security environment, including a possible resurgence of the so-called Islamic State terrorist group, has direct consequences for the old continent. Europe therefore needs to invest more in regional security, and the UN arms embargo against Iran, due to expire by mid-October, offers an unexpected chance to do so.
Washington is determined to extend the ban, threatening to force a "snap-back" of all pre-2015 UN sanctions. Tehran, in contrast, insists on its lifting as agreed by the nuclear deal, backed by Russia and China as would-be suppliers of arms. Following either path will probably kill the deal for good and, worse, do lasting damage to the authority of the UN Security Council on the way.
As a way out of this conundrum, the Europeans should seek to turn the Iran-only ban into one against all non-state actors in the region. Such a list would include Iranian proxies like Hezbollah, but also Saudi-supported groups active in the various regional conflicts. This would help to de-escalate regional tensions while defusing a dangerous international standoff over the validity of the multilateral system.
The next six months, until after the US election, will determine whether the Europeans can maintain an independent approach to Iran – or whether they have to abandon an effort they started 17 years ago when negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program.
To do so, the EU will have to go beyond the bilateral and regionalise its policies, whether in providing humanitarian support against the pandemic, resolving tensions around the nuclear file, or working to stop the proliferation of arms around the Persian Gulf.
For a union claiming to be a "geopolitical" actor and aiming for "sovereignty", revamping its policy toward Iran into a regional strategy would be a good place to start.