New EU Top Diplomat Will Seek Continuity on Iran—if Circumstances Allow
While the recent nominations for European Union’s top posts sparked some controversy, there is broad consensus in Brussels that Josep Borrell, the foreign minister of Spain, is a worthy nominee to replace Federica Mogherini as the EU’s High Representative for foreign policy.
The European Parliament will vote on the new European Commission in October. Prior to that, Borrell—who will also wear the hat of the Commission’s vice-president—will have to face hearings in the Parliament’s foreign affairs committee. These hearings are not a mere formality and nominees have stumbled in the past. But given Borrell’s profile, there is little doubt he will pass muster.
In Borrell’s favor speaks his ample experience in Spanish and European politics. He is a veteran member of the Spanish Socialist party. He honed his skills in Brussels as the president of the European Parliament from 2004 to 2007. Since June 2018 he is the foreign minister of Spain. To both his supporters and detractors, Borrell is known as an intellectual powerhouse. Although some diplomats fret that he may be “too outspoken” for the High Representative role, his directness could help Europe’s foreign policy find a voice that goes beyond bland statements reflecting the minimum consensus between EU member states.
Borrell’s statements made after securing the nomination show that he sees saving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) as an immediate priority for the EU. In comments to the Spanish media, he expressed hope that “sanity will prevail” and that “worst will be avoided” in the brewing crisis following the violation of the nuclear deal by the United States. He stressed that Iran fulfilled its part of the agreement, and that the recent surpassing of the limits of the low enriched uranium are due to “technical reasons”, not Iran’s “will to violate the pact.”
He also criticized the decision of the United Kingdom to detain a tanker carrying Iranian oil—allegedly at the request of the United States—off the coast of Gibraltar. While Borrell’s comments must be understood in the context of the long-running dispute between Madrid and London over the status of Gibraltar, the fact that Spain protested a seizure of a tanker with Iranian oil says as much about its rejection of the extra-territorial American sanctions as it does about its feelings of its sovereignty being infringed by the British.
These are not random views expressed in reaction to particular political events. Rather, they are reflective of Borrell’s broader outlook. The fact that Spain is traditionally one of the EU countries with a pragmatic and moderate view of Iran—a group that also includes Sweden, Finland, Belgium, Austria, Netherlands and, under the previous government, Italy—certainly plays a role. As surely does Borrell’s socialist background. His predecessors in the role of the EU foreign policy chief—another Spaniard Javier Solana, Catherine Ashton, and Federica Mogherini—each hail from this political family and each endeavored to pursue nuclear diplomacy and broader engagement with Iran.
Borrell himself displayed a nuanced understanding of Iran on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Islamic revolution in February of this year. In a series of tweets savaged by the right-wing media as “appeasement of the ayatollahs” he noted how Iran’s literacy rates increased since the revolution from 35 percent to 84 percent. He also recognized Iran as a key power in the Middle East, while contrasting the United States’ attitude to Vietnam and Iran, two countries that “inflicted heavy defeats on the super-power in 1970s.” In Borrell’s assessment, while relations with Vietnam are “now excellent”, Iran is still “an obsession of the American government, with no diplomatic relations and Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear agreement and re-impose sanctions.” In conclusion, Borrell stated that Iran “could survive the sanctions if Trump is not re-elected, but, in the opposite case, could re-active its nuclear program and multiply its interventions in the region.”
Such views led some Israeli and Emirati media outlets to accuse Borrell, preposterously, of being “a supporter of the Iranian regime,” conflating his advocacy for a dialogue with Tehran with the defense of its regime—a favorite tactic of those opposed to diplomatic engagement with the Islamic Republic.
Borrell’s views on Iran suggest continuity with Mogherini’s pro-engagement policy. However, the Spaniard will face two serious challenges on this path. First, he must preserve unity among member states facing the Trump administration’s relentless “maximum pressure” campaign. Already, some European states are showing signs that they may be inching closer to Washington, among them Brexiting Britain and the populist-led Italy. Some eastern European countries, like Hungary and Poland, which maintain excellent relations with both the Trump administration and Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu, may follow suit.
Borrell was outspoken in his steadfast opposition of the United States’ sanctions on Iran. If his previous statements are any guide, he could well be inclined to push back more aggressively against American unilateralism than has been the case until now, but his ability to rally the member states will be tested. Borrell himself pointed to the unanimity rule as a major impediment for the EU to play a more effective international role. One solution could be for a wider group of member states to join,the “E3” countries of Britain, France and Germany and become shareholders in INSTEX, the mechanism devised to support bilateral trade with Iran.
The second challenge Borrell faces has to do with the fact that by the time he assumes his position in November, (provided the European Parliament approves the new Commission), he could well face a scenario very different from today. If Iran does not obtain sanctions relief from Washington, nor economic assistance from the remaining parties to the JCPOA, it may well follow through on its warnings and pursue escalation, whether by reducing its compliance with the JCPOA or by retaliating against American allies in the Persian Gulf.
Even if European governments blame the United States for igniting the crisis, they can hardly be expected to condone continued Iranian non-compliance with its commitments under the nuclear deal. The next couple of months will thus be crucial in determining whether the tensions between America and Iran will de-escalate, or degenerate into military confrontation. For now, piloting the EU through this crisis remains Federica Mogherini’s responsibility. Thus, Borrell’s ability to steer the EU policy on Iran will depend not just on his own views, but also on the nature of the crisis he will inherit.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the European Parliament.