The 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, in which the EU played a vital role, marked an important milestone in resetting the country’s relations with the West. This afternoon MEPs debate a resolution on the EU’s strategy towards Iran. The report advocates expanding EU-Iran trade, calls for EU efforts to ease tensions between Tehran and Riyadh and urges the country to suspend use of the death penalty. More in our interview with UK S&D member Richard Howitt, author of the report.
What has changed with Iran? How have EU relations with the country already improved?
Three years ago there was no engagement between Iran and Europe. Many believe they were developing a nuclear weapons programme, something Iran has denied. There were hostile statements about Israel and other countries and the situation of human rights and democracy was dire.
It’s not that everything has improved; it hasn’t. There is a path towards improvement though. More reformist-minded people are being elected. There was the nuclear agreement, a superb victory for European diplomacy as well as personally for EU High Representative Federica Mogherini and an opportunity to bring Iran back into the international community, while working towards ensuring full respect for international law.
The deal was a huge prize for peace and stability in a troubled region, particularly as we weep at the humanitarian catastrophes in Syria and Yemen. Getting Iran back to the diplomatic table to solve those conflicts is a crucial part of what this new strategy can achieve.
What further efforts are required now to help advance EU-Iran relations?
We need practical proposals for cooperation on anti-terrorism. It also involves us opening up an EU delegation in Tehran and the reopening of dialogue on human rights. Fifteen member states have already sent trade delegations to Tehran. There are big economic opportunities there to the benefit of both sides and I specifically support the deal for Airbus. Yet respect for trade unions and other human rights must be part of any new deals on investment.
Real gains are possible on human rights. Forces within Iran are pressing for them and we hope our report will push that over the line. We are very clearly against all use of the death penalty, but by ending executions for drug-related offences alone, it would reduce the number of executions by up to 80%.
What would you say to those who have condemned the nuclear deal with Iran?
There are people who want to keep Iran weak and isolated. The consequence of the agreement breaking down would be Iran returning towards nuclear proliferation, an immediate security threat for the Gulf region and Israel. There would be no dialogue on improving human rights and ultimately the Iranian people would lose out more than anyone.
As a major player in the Middle East, could a normalisation of relations with Iran help resolve the region’s security crises?
We know there is deep and abiding rivalry between Tehran and Riyadh. This has spilled over into what many call proxy wars, with both Iran and Saudi Arabia sponsoring armed groups and causing death and bloodshed. Our report is very careful not to take sides, but notes it is Europe’s role to bring both parties together and use our diplomatic influence to de-escalate the tension.
Europe has influence over Iran now that the Americans do not. We want to leverage that influence to end the wars in Syria and Yemen and move towards a new regional security structure for the whole Middle East that ensures peace and security for every country.
- 60% of the population is estimated to be under 30 years old
- Second largest economy in the Middle East, the world’s largest economy outside the World Trade Organization
- Fourth largest refugee population (behind Turkey, Pakistan and Lebanon)
- Second largest gas reserves in the world as well as the fourth largest oil reserves
- World number one in death penalty executions per capita