Skip to main content

European ties become a casualty of Iran's military support for Russia

As Iran looks east to an alliance with Russia, Tehran's ties to Europe are cratering, and with them, hopes for a return to the nuclear deal
Vladimir Putin and Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi hold a meeting in Tehran on July 19, 2022 (AFP)

European powers who traditionally advocated for engagement with Iran are turning on the Islamic Republic, closing one of Tehran’s last open doors to the West at a time of rising tensions abroad and unrest at home.

The shift has been driven by Iran's supply of drones to Russia and its violent crackdown on protesters who have called for ousting the Islamic Republic from power. Hopes for a return to the 2015 nuclear deal have all but collapsed.

"In public opinion and press, the emphasis is on demonstrations, but when you talk to governments in private, the drone shipments may come into play first," a European diplomat told Middle East Eye on condition of anonymity.

The shift in attitudes is evident in the European Union's speedy rollout of sanctions against Iran - a surprising move to those familiar with the bloc's often sclerotic approach to policymaking.

'If you talk to any professional diplomat in Brussels the turnaround on sanctions like that would have been unthinkable in the past'

- European diplomat

Since October 10, the EU has announced three sanctions packages against Iran - more than the bloc imposed in the previous nine years.

Two rounds have been passed over the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody and Tehran’s subsequent crackdown on protests.

On October 20, the EU slapped sanctions on Iran for its drone supplies to Russia, about a month after the first reports emerged accusing Moscow of deploying Iranian UAVs in battle.

"If you talk to any professional diplomat in Brussels the turnaround on sanctions like that would have been unthinkable in the past," the diplomat told MEE.

"It's clear that Iran fundamentally miscalculated how much its support to Russia for a war in Europe's heartland was going to poison its relationships on the continent," Ellie Geranmayeh, an Iran specialist at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told MEE.

"The Iran debate in Europe today is becoming as toxic as it has in the US," Geranmayeh added.

Eastern approaches

Iran's cooling ties with Europe are in contrast to Tehran's budding relationship with Russia. The two were partners in the Syrian war, where Russian airpower combined with Iranian ground proxies to rescue the government of Bashar al-Assad.

Today, analysts and diplomats say the two are moving beyond a marriage of convenience in hotspots to a more ideologically aligned partnership.

Vladimir Putin's first trip outside Russia since invading Ukraine was to Iran. Putin has promised to accelerate Iran's bid to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), a central Asian security bloc designed as a counterweight to Western influence in Eurasia.

Officials including Russian security chief Nikolai Patrushev, who are sanctioned by the US, have been welcomed in the Islamic Republic, while Russian business tycoons have turned to Iran for help on evading Western sanctions. The two countries reportedly plan to build a factory for Iranian drones on Russian soil.

Ukraine war: Iranian drone factory could open in Russia, but mutual suspicions remain
Read More »

"If you put all these factors together, what you get is the end of Iran's neither-East-nor-West ideal, and a prioritisation of the East," Henry Rome, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, specialising in Iran, told MEE.

Iran and the US have lacked official relations since the overthrow of the Shah of Iran and the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979 - Europe, however, maintained ties with Iran. One aspect of that was that tourists and exchange students frequently visited the Islamic Republic.

The degradation of ties is now playing out in a spate of detentions of Europeans on Iranian soil. In October, Spain said a 41-year-old citizen was likely arrested in Iran while hiking to the World Cup. In August, a German tourist was also arrested. Seven French citizens have been detained as part of an escalating row between Paris and Tehran. 

French President Emmanuel Macron has slammed Iran for "unacceptable hostage-taking". In October, one couple was filmed by Iranian security services making what France's foreign ministry said was a fake spying confession.

Hardening views

The main European powers have historically been reluctant to wade into direct confrontation with Tehran.

The E3 - Germany, France and the United Kingdom - initiated the negotiations that lead to the 2015 nuclear deal. They also opposed the Trump administration's decision to unilaterally withdraw from the pact, and shot down US efforts to reimpose UN sanctions.

But Geranmayeh, from the European Council on Foreign Relations, said Iranian hardliners who control all the main levers of power in Iran today saw weakness in European foreign policy during the Trump era.

"Their view is that Europe protested Trump's decisions but didn't come through with tangible benefits for Iran," she said. "Iran's leadership believes that its natural partners are in the East."

'If the nuclear file was in a better place, Europe would probably look at Iranian drone supplies differently. They would be somewhat more constrained'

- Henry Rome, Washington Institute

On Monday, statements from Germany - Iran's largest trade partner in the EU - underscored Europe's changing attitude on the nuclear talks. Berlin said it agreed with the United States in shifting focus away from reviving a deal to instead focusing on Iranian popular protests.

A foreign ministry spokesperson said Berlin and Washington "are really moving along the same lines".

"European views have hardened on Iran," Sanam Vakil, deputy director of the Middle East North Africa programme at the London-based Chatham House think-tank told MEE. "This of course is trickling through to its approach on the nuclear programme."

"The level of pressure [from Europe] is going to increase and the E3 will be working more closely in concert with the Biden administration to enforce sanctions," Vakil added.

Burning bridges

European support for a return to the nuclear deal continued - even after the US said it had intelligence that Iran was preparing to send drones to Russia. Two weeks after a press briefing by US national security director Jake Sullivan on the topic, the EU's foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, called for the US and Iran to compromise on a deal. 

Some see Europe's position on Iran - including sanctions over drone supplies to Russia - as a product of failed nuclear negotiations.

"I think if the nuclear file was in a better place, Europe would probably look at Iranian drone supplies differently. They would be somewhat more constrained," Rome, from the Washington Institute, told MEE.

Ukrainian fighters unfazed by Iran drone supplies to Russia
Read More »

But the war in Ukraine complicates efforts to push for a revival of talks, the European diplomat told MEE: "Nobody would be in a position to argue for a resumption of the deal because public opinion would be against it and with the war in Ukraine it wouldn't make sense."

As ties with Europe cool, Tehran and its neighbours are pursuing a cautious rapprochement. Both the UAE and Kuwait have reappointed ambassadors to Iran.

"Tehran is asking 'do we really need Europe anymore, because the UAE or Qatar may be more useful as a facilitator of talks with the Americans' - I still think they are wrong on that assessment," Geranmayeh said.

"By burning bridges with Europe. They burn the bridge of a potential restoration of the JCPOA."

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.