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Norms, not politics, should shape the European position on Iran’s arms embargo

While the U.S. fiddles with bad faith on Iran, Europe has an opportunity to lead and provide a better path forward.

Analysis | Europe

With a few months left before the expiration of the United Nations-mandated arms embargo against Iran, Washington is in full swing desperately trying to prolong it.

Achieving this goal would require cooperation from other members of the U.N. Security Council (UNSC), who (plus Germany) are also signatures of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran (JCPOA), which requires lifting the arms embargo in October 20202, after five years of its implementation. In case other members of the UNSC won’t oblige, Washington retrospectively discovered one crucial advantage that this supposedly “worst deal ever,” according to Donald Trump, conferred on the U.S. and other signatories — a right to initiate a snapback of U.N. sanctions in case of Iranian non-compliance.

The problem, of course, is that the U.S. officially terminated its participation in the agreement in May, 2018 and substituted it with a “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, a move that has pitted the U.S. against other signatories, including its European allies.

U.S. Special Representative on Iran Brian Hook, echoing talking points from militarist think-tanks like the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), tried to contort a case that being a “participant” to the deal is not the same as “participating” in that deal. No amount of legal sophistry, however, will conceal the outrageously bad faith behind this effort. The European Union’s High Representative for foreign policy Josep Borrell explicitly rejected this tortured logic, saying the U.S. can no longer be considered part of the JCPOA.

The rejection of the notion that the U.S. can selectively benefit from an agreement it repudiated, however, does not automatically mean European allies will not try to accommodate Washington’s views on the arms embargo.

That is partly because the EU/E3 (Britain, France, Germany) share many of the American concerns on Iran. The E3 blamed Iran for an attack on Saudi oilfields in 2019 and regularly condemned what it called its “destabilizing regional activities” in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.

The EU has its own embargo in place against any transfers of arms and missile technologies to Iran till 2023. Another reason for possible European collaboration is simply the fact that Europeans often succumb to American pressures, even in cases where doing so does not add much value in terms of enhancing their security — like Germany’s recent designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.

No wonder, then, that much of the discussion of a possible European response to American demands to re-impose the U.N. arms embargo against Iran is focused on the politics of the transatlantic relations, i.e., incentives for the EU to accommodate its American ally, or price it may have to pay for failing to do so.

However, the EU should not lose the sight of a bigger picture. The debate on Iran’s arms embargo provides it with an opportunity to promote a norms-based rather than merely politics-based response.

Namely, rather than focusing on quick fixes concerning only one actor, no matter how troublesome, the EU should start a conversation on pathways to a new U.N.-led global arms trade regime that would promote the goal of the world peace envisioned in the U.N. Charter. The EU’s own “common position” on arms exports control, with clearly specified criteria for sales to third countries, is a useful building bloc for forging such a global comprehensive approach.

Granted, this common position, which rules out arms sales to conflict zones and imposes human rights criteria, is currently not fully enforced by the EU member states themselves. Moreover, some have long-standing economic and strategic interests in some of the world’s most militarized regions, like the Persian Gulf.

Another potential road block is that nascent European common defense policy emphasizes building a true pan-European defense industry. One consequence is that, for example, if Germany bans arms sales to Saudi Arabia, as it did in the wake of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, no European product containing German-made components can be sold to that country. Germany thus would stand accused of undermining the European defense industry for the sake of brandishing its own “moral high ground.”

The solution to this conundrum, however, should not be to ignore or discard the “common position,” but to ensure that all EU member states adhere to it. If the EU prides itself of being a norms-based community, it should start by respecting its own norms, then it can credibly campaign for those norms to be adopted globally.

Contrary to those who would dismiss such an approach as mere wishful thinking, adhering to norms also makes good politics. Permanent members of the UNSC are among the world’s most prolific arms sellers. Among their top clients are countries like Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates who are accused of war crimes in Yemen.

Yet, despite ample evidence of such crimes, at no point did the United States, Britain, France, Russia, or China, the permanent members of the UNSC, consider introducing an arms embargo against these states.

That these would be the same countries imposing a new arms embargo against Iran would only harm the credibility of the U.N., and further weaken the rules-based multilateral system. It would reinforce the message that, ultimately, your fortunes depend not on your respect for international norms, but on your geopolitical alliances.

This is not an argument to give Iran a free pass. It is about ensuring that the same norms apply to all members of the international community equally. As a normative power, the EU is optimally placed to lead that effort.

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the S&D Group and the European Parliament.

Josep Borrell the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy {Photo credit: Nicolas Economou /
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