One of the most challenging obstacles overshadowing the relations between Iran and the European Union (EU) has been the issue of human rights. Not only has the EU adopted various resolutions condemning human rights violations by the Iranian government, but it has also been a driving force for the United Nations Human Rights Council as well as the General Assembly of the United Nations to adopt similar resolutions criticizing the Islamic Republic of Iran’s human rights record. The EU believes Iran’s human rights record – especially regarding discrimination against women and minorities, death penalty rates, the repression of freedom of speech, and continued support for terrorism – is not compatible with the EU’s human rights values and principles.
The EU is an active global player who has an influential role in international transformations. Iran would, in turn, be affected by these transformations and, thus, is in search of practical ways to secure its interests in the region and globally. Since the Islamic Revolution in Iran, this relationship has never been a strategic one due to the difference in values and cultural principles on both sides. However, the EU’s international role and Iran’s regional importance has called for the development of bilateral relations. Moreover, Iran is of strategic importance for the EU since it sits at the crossroads of Asia between the Middle East and Central Asia. However, Iran’s nuclear program, its support of terrorism, and gross human rights violations have dented the development of bilateral relations.
The EU can consider two different positions in its external relations with Iran. Firstly, it can call for political and economic cooperation with the Islamic Republic if it complies with international human rights norms and obligations. The second position is in favor of developing external relations while being critical on the situation of human rights by the Iranian government. In this regard, the role of the European Parliament and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy in issuing human rights resolutions, declarations, statements and annual reports on the human rights situation have been notable.
Although these documents lack the necessary, obligatory nature, they have a determinant effect on shaping international public opinion as is evident in their contribution to bringing about consensus among the members of the United Nations (in the General Assembly as well as the Security Council) to adopt resolutions and sanctions against Iran. Thus, it is understandable how human rights implications overshadow ties between the EU and Iran. However, this procedure was not pursued after the adoption of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), through which the European side has mostly neglected human rights concerns.
The JCPOA paved the way for the development of political, economic, and cultural relations between Iran and the EU. It was beneficial for the Iranian side due to the relief of international sanctions on the Iranian economy which began to display a de-securitized dimension of the Iranian nuclear program. This agreement opened a new chapter for ties between Iran and the EU which can be indicated through the increasing rate of visits by top European officials, among them delegations from Italy, Greece, Switzerland, Austria, Ireland, and Croatia.
The JCPOA confirmed the EU’s adoption of a new approach toward the Middle East which was mainly based on realism and pragmatism. This approach is still visible despite the revival of economic sanctions by the United States against Iran and the strain on the transatlantic relations as a result of the EU’s support for the deal. The pressures from the Middle East, mainly regarding migration and energy security, made the EU abandon its normative principles of external relations for an approach to serving its strategic interests. In this respect, although the EU has declared nominal concerns over the human rights situation in Iran during recent years, there are no practical achievements even in the form of statements by the High Representative (HR) of the Union. More surprisingly, the current HR of the Union has not yet decided to visit Iranian human rights activists despite their requests.
It is, thus, clear that the strategic interests of both sides led the EU to pursue a different foreign policy with a more realistic approach where human rights issues are neither the means nor ends to a transfer of European values and principles. This was a head start for the EU to depart from its principles concerning the transfer of human rights and democratic values to third-world countries which, regarding the Middle East, would lead to a remarkable decrease in the EU’s normative power. In the longer term, this would reduce the role and effective contribution of the EU in the issues of the Middle East which would, in turn, affect its negotiating power, not only in political but also economic affairs in the region.
Samireh Ahmadi holds a Master's degree in European External Relations from the University of Hamburg and another Master's degree in International Relations from Tehran University.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Kurdistan 24.
Editing by Karzan Sulaivany