Could the war in Ukraine be a catalyst for change in EU-Iran relations?

One unexpected consequence of the Russian war in Ukraine is that the European Union must reassess and adopt a more holistic view of its relationship with Iran.
EU High Representative Josep Borrell greets Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Tehran, February 2020. Photo: Alamy

By Eleanor Doorley

Eleanor Doorley is a Dods EU Political Intelligence consultant.

13 Jun 2022

Of the many far-flung effects of Russia’s war in Ukraine, one unexpected consequence is that the crisis has put pressure on the European Union to reassess its relationship with Iran. EU-Iran cooperation has encompassed a wide range of areas in recent years, including trade, agriculture and migration. The European Commission notes that €50m in support of bilateral cooperation was allocated to Iran in 2018 – this comes “in addition to humanitarian aid to assist Iran’s efforts to host its large refugee population”.

Yet bilateral discussions between the EU and Iran have predominantly focused on the Iran nuclear deal, otherwise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Since 2006, the EU High Representative has led cooperation between the EU and Iran. The JCPOA was ultimately agreed in 2015, only for the United States to withdraw from the deal in 2018, a move that severely hindered implementation.

The role of the JCPOA

A landmark deal, the JCPOA was designed to “ensure that Iran’s nuclear programme will be exclusively peaceful and provides for the comprehensive lifting of UN, EU and US nuclear-related sanctions”, according to the European External Action Service (EEAS).

In an email to The Parliament Magazine, EEAS spokesperson Peter Stano observed that the Iran nuclear deal “remains a key security achievement” for the EU, adding that it has a crucial role to play in global non-proliferation and preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Considering that the “Iran nuclear programme continues to grow at a worrying pace,” a swift implementation of the deal is in the interest of all parties, he said.

Echoing this concern at the Israeli-Arab Summit held in Israel at the end of March, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken insisted that a restoration of the 2015 nuclear deal would be “the best way to put Iran’s program back in the box it was in”.


At the beginning of March 2022, it seemed as though negotiators were within touching distance of an agreement, as expressed by the EU’s top envoy and coordinator of the talks, Enrique Mora, in a tweet: “We are at the final stages of the #ViennaTalks on #JCPOA. Some relevant issues are still open and success is never guaranteed in such a complex negotiation. Doing our best in the coordinator’s team. But we are definitely not there yet.”

Progress has undeniably been slow. Indeed, the sluggish pace of talks has called into question the imminence of a resolution, with the impact of the war in Ukraine being particularly significant. 

Russia withdrew from the negotiations in early March, claiming that western sanctions over the war in Ukraine constituted a major stumbling block to their participation. Meanwhile, in an obvious reference to the escalating conflict in Ukraine, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security, Josep Borrell, called for a pause in the talks, citing “external factors”.

Chain reaction

Much like a nuclear chain reaction, the current geopolitical situation is such that the outcome of talks between states on one international issue is inevitably affected by developments elsewhere. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has added an element of urgency to the West’s quest for alternative sources of oil and gas. Iran, therefore, has acquired a considerable amount of leveraging power in the JCPOA negotiations with regard to its own oil reserves.

Acknowledging the trend of skyrocketing energy prices, Majid Chegeni, the head of the National Iranian Gas Company (NIGC), remarked on 15 May that Iran was considering the possibility of exporting its gas to Europe.

Rethinking relations

It remains to be seen whether the fallout from the Ukraine crisis will restore a sense of urgency to the stalled talks between the E3/EU+3 and Iran, but there is now a new incentive for both sides to reach a deal.

Speaking at a European Parliament Committee meeting on 28 March following his return from the Gulf, Borrell contemplated the EU’s relationship with the region and said that greater cooperation should be prioritised.

He noted that “for the Gulf countries, security means nuclear, and nuclear means Iran,” viewing the prospect of regional stability as a vital incentive for all sides to reach an agreement on the JCPOA.

New geopolitical realities

As diplomatic negotiations between world powers take place, EU and US relations with Iran are somewhat dominated by the subject of non-proliferation. This ignores the new geopolitical realities resulting from the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, notes in a recent commentary that if there is an agreement on the JCPOA, then US and EU policymakers should put their heads together and “craft an Iran policy that accounts for the country’s strategic outlook.” 

Given the drastically shifting geopolitical landscape, “the successful conclusion of the nuclear negotiations would be a strong signal that Iran’s long-term interests lie in a balanced foreign policy”.

Going forward, the EU must adopt a holistic view of its relationship with Iran to ensure that other areas of cooperation are not eclipsed by policies focusing solely on the country’s nuclear capabilities. 

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