Iran provides a sign of the turmoil to come – this is how Europe should respond

With a popular uprising merely paused, the nuclear standoff hardening, and material support for Russia’s war against Ukraine growing, Iran poses an acute threat to European security. The next regional clash could be the spark of a wider conflagration, it's time for a new approach
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi met with the Chairman of the Russian State Duma Vyacheslav Volodin in Tehran earlier this year in a sign of their developing military alliance | Photo: Alamy

By Cornelius Adebahr

Cornelius Adebahr is a non-resident fellow at Carnegie Europe

07 Apr 2023

If European policymakers thought supporting Ukraine against Russian aggression and worrying about a global confrontation between the United States and China was enough on their foreign policy plates, the last month brought a possible violent escalation in the Middle East back into focus.  

This time, the news came from Jerusalem where US ambassador to Israel, Tom Nides, went on record to say: “Israel can and should do whatever they need to deal with [Iran], and we’ve got their back”.

That’s on the heels of reports Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held meetings with senior defence and intelligence officials to prepare an attack on Iranian nuclear installations.  

What feels like a throwback to early 2012, when then US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta spoke of a “strong likelihood” of Israel attacking Iran that spring, is actually far more dangerous. Back then, Europe wasn’t mired in a ground war involving a nuclear power, and China was still “hiding its strength and biding its time”.

So, if an Israeli attack on Iran – which would certainly draw in the US and, subsequently, other global powers – seemed like a risky idea back then, a decade later it amounts to pure folly.  

Still, this is a scenario European policymakers must contemplate, and from a disadvantageous position. For nearly two decades, those who cared about Iran mainly focused on the nuclear file.

Justified as those efforts were, they led to a near-complete negligence of the situation inside the country, where substantial protests erupted in 2017 and 2018, and again in late 2019.  

This failure to engage with Iranian civil society robbed the EU and its Member States of the means to connect with, and possibly support, the people who started the most recent revolt in the wake of the death of Mahsa Jina Amini in September 2022.  

More worrying, from a European security perspective, is Iran’s developing military alliance with Russia. Last autumn, through its provision of self-destructing drones to Russia, Tehran helped Moscow regain an upper hand on the battlefield.

The world is at a point where the alternatives appear to be bombing Iran or accepting an Iranian bomb

With a UN arms embargo against Iran lapsing in October 2023, the country is expecting dozens of Russian fighter jets as a reward – a reason, some argue, to attack the country’s nuclear installations sooner rather than later.  

Finally, the nuclear threat has only become greater since the US withdrew from the Iran deal and began its policy of “maximum pressure” in 2018. Tehran increased its uranium enrichment while the UN’s nuclear watchdog saw its inspection powers curtailed.

The world, it seems, is back at a point where the alternatives appear to be bombing Iran or accepting an Iranian bomb – neither of which is conducive to European security.  

The EU should see the risks around Iran as a multiplicity of threats from an adversarial regime, compounded by the latter’s alliance with antagonistic global powers like Russia and China.  

In response it should come up with a comprehensive approach to Iran and the region, based on three pillars: engaging civil society inside the country to get a better sense of, and possibly support, societal movements; working on a regional security scheme including non-proliferation safeguards for Iran to prevent an Israeli attack and a nuclear arms race; and mobilising non-western states to address Iran’s continued violations of international norms. 

Iran is set to rise to the top of the EU’s agenda this year. Given the situation is representative of the geopolitical conflicts to come, it will be an important litmus test for the bloc.