European Union and Iran in 2020: a complicated relationship

What challenges await the European Union?

One of the challenges that the European Union will have to face in 2020 - and in the years to come - is linked to its relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose stability risks being threatened by renewed tensions between the latter and the United States.

In fact, after Donald Trump announced in 2018 the withdrawal of the US from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) - the agreement on nuclear power signed in 2015 - thus restoring the sanctions against the Middle East country, the latter decided in July 2019 to break the limits on uranium enrichment that had been imposed by the treaty. [1] In addition, the escalation of tensions between the two countries and the mutual hostile actions carried out between the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020 - such as the American attacks against some Iranian military bases, the killing of Iranian General Soleimani, and the attack of the American embassy in Iraq by pro - Iranian protesters - [2] have further compromised the relations between the two states.

What does the European Union have to do with all this?

In order to better understand, it is necessary to start from the role that Brussels had in the conclusion of the nuclear agreement. In fact, since the rise of the Iranian nuclear issue in 2003[3], the Middle East country saw the European States as a more open speaker than the United States.[4] In 2015, the success of the negotiations, can also be attributed to the mediating action carried out by the High Representatives of the Union that followed in their course: Javier Solana, Catherine Ashton and Federica Mogherini. This last said: "I can say with pride that the European Union has made the agreement possible". [5]

After Washington's withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, however, Tehran accused Europe of being succumbing to the American unilateralism even though, subsequently, the European signatories reaffirmed their sustain to the agreement.[6]

In fact, the EU's External Action Service announces that the Union's objectives in the relations with Iran include "ensuring and supporting the full implementation of the JCPOA to further improve and deepen bilateral relations".[7] In fact, the implications of the agreement are not limited to the nuclear issue: if it is not respected and the sanctions that were previously suspended are reintroduced, it will be complex also for European states to have economic relations with Iran. Evidence of this is the fact that the American sanctions against the country also prevent Europeans from buying oil from Iran.[8]

The other objectives of the relations between Brussels and Tehran, as affirmed in the European External Action Service document, are aimed at developing cooperation, including economic cooperation, in areas of mutual interest (such as the environment, energy, humanitarian aid, human rights) and to promote peace, security and regional stability, and sustaining the peaceful resolution of local conflicts through dialogue and participation.[9]

The reference to regional conflicts, in particular, shows how important it is for the European Union to have an ally like Iran in an unstable region like the Middle East. However, if the latter keeps on providing uranium beyond the limits imposed by the JCPOA, it will cease to be a reliable partner; therefore the EU may have to limit its cooperation with Tehran in order not to encourage similar behaviour and not to get into difficulties with Washington.

It is no coincidence that the new EU High Representative, Josep Borrell, visited the Islamic Republic at the beginning of February; during his visit, he stated that he was "determined to do whatever is necessary to preserve the agreement, which is a key element for regional and international security".[10] Borrel then stated that he expects Iran to return to full compliance with the JCPOA's requirements but that it must also be able to benefit economically from the removal of the sanctions", [11] in what appears to be a criticism of the US decision to reintroduce them. At the same time, even sharing these positions, the Council of the European Union has also expressed concern about Iran's role in the Middle East tensions, its recent missile activities and the human rights situation.[12]

It should not be forgotten that international tensions also affect the internal policy, as they're likely to create political situations that are unfavourable to the country's dialogue with Brussels (for example, with more conservative political forces prevailing than at present), which could see its power of persuasion further reduced.

Summing up, therefore, it can be said that three main aspects threatened by recent developments emerge:

1. the economic cooperation between the European Union and the Islamic Republic: we cannot ignore, in fact, the volume of trade between the two parties, made known by the European Commission itself. In 2017 the EU represented the destination of 16.3 % of Iranian exports for 10.1 billion euros and the EU countries exported to the Middle East country goods for 10.8 billion. [13] Most of the European imports concerned fossil fuels,[14] of which Iran has substantial reserves. International tensions risk having extremely negative effects on economic transactions between European states and Tehran.

2. Cooperation on matters of common interest.

3. Perhaps the most important aspect, the collaboration with the country in a perspective of defence of international and regional peace and stability, also considering the severe instability in which the Middle East finds itself. The European Union has so much to lose from an increase in tensions between Washington and Tehran and its direct and indirect consequences, and risks being marginalized, in this scenario.

Written by Chiara Vona

Translated by Simona M. Vallefuoco

Original article: published on 29 January 2020


[1] Laub, Z., Robinson, K., What Is the Status of the Iran Nuclear Agreement?, Council of Foreign Relations, 7 gennaio 2020, in [16 febbraio 2020]

[2] Kaur, H., Kim A., Sherman, I. The US-Iran conflict: A timeline of how we got here, CNN, 11 gennaio 2020, in: [16 febbraio 2020]

[3] Ibidem

[4] see: Petrillo, P. L., Iran, Bologna, Il Mulino, 2008, edizione digitale: 2013, pp. 148, 149

[5] Arisci, M., Come l'Europa ha reso possibile l'accordo con l'Iran, 28/07/2015,

[16 febbraio 2020]

[6] Laub, Z., Robinson, K., What Is the Status of the Iran Nuclear Agreement?, cit.

[7] Iran and the EU, European Union External Action, in [16 febbraio 2020]

[8] Laub, Z., Robinson, K., What Is the Status of the Iran Nuclear Agreement?, cit.

[9] Iran and the EU, European Union External Action, cit.

[10] Press release following High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell’s official visit to Iran, 4 febbraio 2020, in: [22 febbraio 2020]

[11] Ibidem

[12] Council of the EU, Iran: Council adopts conclusions, 4 febbraio 2020, in: [22 febbraio 2020]

[13] Commissione Europea, in: [22 febbraio 2020]

[14] Ibidem

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From the World Europe Middle East & North Africa Sections International Organizations Society


UnioneEuropea Iran Medio Oriente accordo internazionale Nucleare JCPOA Stati Uniti Teheran bruxelles Washington

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