The crisis in relations between Iran and European countries: Future prospects

The system summary is: Over the course of 44 years, relations between Iran and Europe have seen a lot of fluctuations, with the warmest periods being the second term of Hashemi Rafsanjani's presidency and both terms of Mohammad Khatami's presidency. The current crisis between Iran and Europe is not a byproduct of recent events but has historical roots that extend back to the Islamic revolution.
In the end, it was decided that when it comes to the JCPOA, Europe is not able to play an independent role from America and fulfil its JCPOA commitments. [EEAS via AFP].

It appears that in the post-Islamic-revolution era, Iran's relations with Europe have experienced more ups and downs than with any other region.

These fluctuations are so massive that despite the current crisis, some of those associated with the ousted Iranian monarchy consider the support of some European countries, such as France and Britain, instrumental in the victory of the Islamic Revolution in 1979 while some opponents of the Islamic Republic of Iran refer to the British-owned BBC as “Ayatollah BBC”, a sarcastic dig at the channel’s support of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Tracing the root causes of the current crisis in the relations between Iran and European countries is not possible without a historical examination of the turning points since the victory of the Revolution, for it seems that the ongoing crises are meaningfully associated with the background of these relations. Therefore, in this article, we will have a brief historical overview of the relations before examining the current crisis.                                   

The course of relations between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Europe

Before the revolution, when Ayatollah Khomeini had been exiled by Iran’s monarchy and various countries refused to grant him entry, France decided to accept him. He resided in in the village of Neauphle-le-Château (1) near Versailles, which he leveraged as an important intellectual centre, a post for the guidance of revolutionaries, and a campaign site against the Pahlavi regime. This in itself is considered a turning point in the Islamic Revolution of Iran. Also, while the monarchy imposed severe censorship in Iran, the role BBC (2) played in broadcasting the speeches and positions of Ayatollah Khomeini was integral in uniting and guiding the revolutionaries and introducing them to the international system. Even after 44 years, these countries are suspected of complicity and offering their full support to staging a new revolution in Iran. Here, the key role played by some Iranians living in Europe and America in fashioning a positive relationship between European governments and Iranian revolutionaries led by Ayatollah Khomeini should be highlighted. In his speeches and in consultation with Mehdi Bazargan (3), Seyed Mohammad Beheshti, Sadegh Qutbzadeh and Ebrahim Yazdi, as prominent pro-revolution figures, he announced that he and the Iranian revolution would recognise international norms and rules and would act accordingly. (4) Iranian expatriates played an important role in projecting a positive image of the Iranian revolution to both the public and elites, as well as promoting a negative one of and delegitimising the Iranian monarchy at the time. (5) At this point, the decision of European countries to support and cover the news of Ayatollah Khomeini was a form of support for Iran's transition from totalitarian rule to democracy; and the idea of a ​​revolution, like that of France in 1789, was considered an event heralding civil values ​​that should be supported. For Ayatollah Khomeini and the revolutionaries, the freedom of expression and European media offered a good opportunity which should be taken advantage of to reinforce the revolution. (6) After the victory of the Islamic revolution, and in the early days of the overthrow of the Pahlavi regime, the United States and Israel were the main targets of the Iranian leader's criticism in his speeches; and no serious criticism of Europe was raised.

However, in the following months, the relations shifted. After the revolution, separatist movements were formed within Iran primarily by trans-border ethnic groups, most notably the Kurds. Several rounds of negotiations between Ayatollah Khomeini's representatives for a peaceful settlement with the Kurdish leaders failed to produce results, and a few months after the revolution, the Kurdish movements took up arms and entered into a military conflict with the central government. At the same time and after losing any hope of achieving their demands of having a significant portion of the power, members of Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) took up arms and staged an armed insurrection against the central government. In such circumstances, Ayatollah Khomeini, who was known as Imam Khomeini by then, started to rue the freedoms he had given to the opposition parties, as they had led to chaos and widespread terror inside Iran, and as a result, restricted the freedoms of parties and media. The executions of some officials of the Pahlavi regime and some of those behind the Kurdish armed uprisings in the revolutionary courts, and eventually, the restriction of freedom of expression and the activities of parties in Iran was followed by the criticism of Western countries. The incident of occupying the American embassy in Iran, which was against the principles and rules of international law and Imam Khomeini's support of this incident further widened the gap between Iran and European countries. The sum of these factors prompted Europe to evaluate Imam Khomeini's actions after the revolution as contrary to what he had announced in his interviews in Paris. After fleeing the country, Bani Sadr, (7) then president of Iran claimed that Imam Khomeini had announced regarding his position in Paris, "I cheated," a claim that was not confirmed by other sources. (8) But the perception of the European governments was based on the idea that Imam Khomeini does not consider himself committed to his statements before the revolution in Paris. The situation and the danger of dividing Iran into smaller countries, as well as the widespread terror and insecurity created in the country, were the reasons for violent confrontations with the opposition and restriction of freedom of expression by the leadership of Iran. Against such a backdrop, the atmosphere of relations between Iran and European countries turned into that of mutual criticism. The start of the invasion of Iraq led by Saddam Hussein in 1980 was an opportunity for the West to sell military weapons to Saddam Hussein. The sale of a wide range of military equipment, including 133 French Mirage F1s, and Roland missiles, as well as the rental of Super Etandard aircraft to Iraq with which Iranian oil tankers were hit, along with Germany, France and Britain’s decisions to help Iraq build a chemical arsenal played an important role in intensifying the atmosphere of mistrust and criticism of European countries by Iran, pushing Iran to consider Europe as the friend of its enemy.

Imam Khomeini's fatwa in 1989 (9) on the necessity of killing Salman Rushdie, the author of Satanic Verses, further strained the relations. Furthermore, the assassination of leaders fighting against the government of Iran, among the most important of which was the assassination of the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party in Qasemlu in Vienna in 1989 (10) and the famous Mykonos assassination in Berlin in 1992 in which Six Kurdish leaders died, proved to be turning points in aggravation of the relations. The tension in relations hit a new high in the aftermath of the assassination of Shapour Bakhtiar, the last prime minister under Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, in Paris in 1991 and led to a serious downturn in political relations and the suspension of major economic activities between Europe and Iran. Iran accused Europe of providing all-round political, military and intelligence support to and harbouring the opposition who took up arms against the Islamic Revolution, while Europe accused Iran of military actions on European soil and brushing aside human rights and civil liberties. In the aftermath of Bakhtiar's assassination and the Mykonos incident and once the relations hit the peak of the crisis, secret negotiations were held between the Iranian authorities led by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and some European countries, as a result of which both sides took on important commitments. The European party pledged to cease the court sessions against Iran for various open cases, avoid supporting the armed counter-revolution streams against Iran and kick start some sort of economic cooperation with Iran. On the other hand, the Iranian side committed to not taking covert or overt military action on European soil and limiting the range of its missiles to less than 2000 kilometres. This is considered to be the most important model of diplomatic and security cooperation and achievement between the parties in the last 44 years, which is still in place despite a number of ups and downs. However, this deal is feared to collapse completely in the face of the current crisis. Now, both sides accuse each other of deviating from the agreement and violating the established tradition.

New tensions between Iran and Europe

The analysis of the current situation of relations is based on the understanding of four seemingly independent issues which actually influence each other. In terms of current developments, these four components are organically connected with each other and have constant interplay.

The first issue: The uncertain fate of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the disillusioned parties

  • The JCPOA negotiations (11) have been going on for about 20 years, the initial stages of which were represented by only three European countries. However, owing to the failure of the interlocutors to achieve the desired result, the United States, China and Russia were also added to the negotiations, which culminated in conclusion of the JCPOA. The nuclear deal was one of the most important global diplomatic achievements, after the treaties that ended the World Wars, in controlling and preventing a crisis, in which the key role of Europe cannot be denied.
  • Despite Iran's full commitment to the provisions of the JCPOA, President Trump's unprovoked withdrawal from it in 2018 (12) had wide-ranging consequences such as Iran's profound mistrust of the West; Of course, at that time, the Europeans did not join Trump in legal and political sanctions.
  • Iran, after a year of appeasement and fulfilling its commitments, was disappointed with Europe's ability to compensate for the damages and scaled down its commitments in five stages, increasing enrichment from 3.67 to 20 percent, storing heavy water instead of selling it and removing the nuclear monitoring cameras of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) cameras.
  • Once Qatar and Oman-mediated exchanges failed to deliver, the Europeans put the indirect negotiation between Iran and the United States through Europe on the table, sending Josep Borrell and his deputies in the field to exchange messages. During negotiations, Iran made demands such as the removal of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs), which the Europeans could not meet. Later, Borrell called the continuation of negotiations futile. In the end, it was decided that when it comes to the JCPOA, the European side is not able to play an independent role from America and fulfil its JCPOA commitments. The European side believed that the most important role of Europe in preserving the JCPOA was to isolate America in this issue and prevent the implementation of the snapback mechanism which would refer the case to the United Nations Security Council. This was not enough for Iran who was not to blame for the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, and had suffered enormous financial losses due to the US policy of maximum pressure (13) and the forced compliance of Europe. Iran had engaged in the JCPOA negotiations for economic benefits that were not practically gained with the withdrawal of the United States. Europe, instead, pressured Iran to comply with all the provisions of the JCPOA in exchange for preventing the triggering of the snapback mechanism, leading to the current deadlock. Currently, while Iran is using the amount of uranium enrichment as the only leverage to revive the JCPOA and bring America back to its JCPOA obligations, the Western side interprets Iran's real intention as moving towards shortening the period of its ability to build nuclear weapons (known as nuclear breakout) on the pretext of America's withdrawal from the JCPOA.

The second issue: The war in Ukraine and the concerns of the parties

The outbreak of the armed conflict in Ukraine (14) escalated the tensions yet again. Iran's leaning towards Russia and finally the accusation of selling unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to Moscow greatly aggravated the already tense situation. From Europe's point of view, the war in Ukraine is the most important challenge that has threatened the world order after the Second World War and directly compromises the security of Europe. Therefore, offering any support and assistance to Russia is insufferable for Europe, and equal to a declaration of hostility. From Europe's point of view, the friend of the enemy of Europe is its enemy. As already mentioned, during the Iran-Iraq war, Iran shared the same opinion of Europe. For Iran, this is an internal issue between Europe and Russia. Iran is under severe financial pressure due to US sanctions coupled with the failure of Europe to keep its side of the nuclear deal; and according to international laws, Iran is free to export conventional weapons to other countries to meet its financial needs, and Russia has cash. Moreover, there was no other proposal by any other country to offer cash to Iran. Therefore, this question arises: why should Iran not sell? Meanwhile, this sale restores the possibility of re-establishing the air balance of the Middle East that had been disturbed due to the sale of advanced weapons to some countries close to the West, such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. For example, the Sukhoi-35 could create a significant counterbalance to US F-35s for Iran. The Iranian side is constantly asking whether the West is willing to neutrally provide Iran with the possibility of purchasing strategic weapons to strike the balance of power in the region. If not, why should Iran not consider other proposals?

The third issue: The protest movement in Iran

In September 2022, the protest movement started against the issue of mandatory hijab, and then extended with the aim of changing the Iranian political system.

For Iran, this is an internal issue in accordance with Iran's internal laws. Other countries have no right whatsoever to get involved; and the expansion of unrest towards radical slogans to change the government triggers the right of legitimate defence to survive. Iran considers the staging of massive demonstrations (15) in support of protests inside Iran in more than fifty cities in Western countries a coordinated, not spontaneous, act orchestrated by Western intelligence communities, further widening the gap between Iran and Europe. On the other hand, Europe plays a normative role in the international system and traditionally reacts to the issues of citizenship, human rights and freedom of expression. Additionally, just like the role Iranians living abroad played at the start of the revolution, Iranian expats, some of whom have secured important positions in the official and unofficial power structure of European countries, now play a key role in policies of the opponents of the Iranian government. They have played an undeniable role in creating a shared image of the Islamic Republic of Iran for decision- makers in Europe as well as the public opinion of European peoples to confront and exert pressure on Iran. The issue of the protests, along with issues such as the nuclear standoff, the war in Ukraine and Iran's role in the crisis in Syria and Yemen, was a good opportunity to put more pressure on Iran, which Europe took advantage of, applying combined pressure in a coherent manner. This was done to force Iran to make serious changes in its policies at three levels: domestic, regional and international. It seems that at some levels in Europe, miscalculations have been made without considering the realities on the ground, as well as an extreme optimism regarding the regime change in Iran in the short term due to the popular protests. Although the passing of time will prove this view invalid, it has already affected Europe's determination to revive the JCPOA.

The fourth issue: The mutual arrest of people by European countries and Iran (16)

From Europe's point of view, Iran has arrested innocent people with European or dual (Iranian and European) citizenship and charged them with espionage for political or economic blackmail. From this point of view, several points are worth mentioning. First, Iran's reasons and documents were not sufficient. Second, those arrested did not have the right to access an international lawyer. Third, there was no transparency in the court process and proceedings. Fourth, due to the fact that some agreements for the exchange of prisoners or the release of people in exchange for the release of Iran's frozen funds were successfully carried out and the Iranian side reached its demands, this issue has become an attractive and beneficial issue for Iran, increasing its appetite for repeating and multiplying these cases. Unofficially, it is estimated that about sixty people with Western or dual citizenship are currently detained by Iran's judicial system. Fifth, there is an internal competition between the centres of power in Iran. For example, those affiliated with military forces used the the arrest of foreign nationals as leverage during Rouhani's presidency. (17) Sixth, Iran has violated the aforementioned tacit agreement led by Hashemi Rafsanjani, and the arrest of people related to Iran in Denmark, Belgium and other places proves that Iran is engaged in military security activities on European soil, which Europe cannot easily turn a blind eye to.

However, from Iran's point of view, there is another side to this story. First, Iran claims that a number of scientific elites and Iranian businessmen have been arrested in Europe for reasons not plausibly justified by the regulations of the international system and only because of American sanctions and pressure, which constitutes a violation of widely recognised international law. Second, Iran does not have the tools to pressure European countries into releasing these individuals, such as economic sanctions, and therefore has to resort to various tools at its disposal to protect its national interests. Third, in the implicit agreement struck with Europe in the 1990s, although it was stipulated that European countries should avoid supporting armed movements against Iran, some European countries, including Denmark (18), continue to support the leaders of the opposition parties that openly carry out terrorist operations in Iranian territory by issuing residence and political activity permits. A notable example here is the case of the Denmark-based Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz, which has taken military actions against Iran and has assassinated a large number of its civilians. In the same vein, European countries support the MEK, an organisation notorious the assassination of over 12000 civilians in Iran. Fourth, regarding the arrest of the Iranian diplomat in Belgium, the evidence and documents show that he was caught in a pre-planned ploy and did not actually commit the crime he was accused of. Fifth, the procedure of arresting Hamid Nouri (19) by Swedish officials on the account of his actions in Iran set a tricky precedent in the future of the international system, which is not specific to Iran and includes cases of European nationals and officials. Iran considers such cases to be valid only through international legal channels and perceives them as a threat to security in the world outside Iran. Iranian authorities assert that in Europe's complaints against Iran, it was the European side that initiated the crisis.


Relations between Iran and Europe have had many ups and downs in the past 44 years, the warmest periods of which seem to have been in the second term of Hashemi Rafsanjani's presidency, thanks to the security agreement, and the terms of Mohammad Khatami's presidency due to the perceived affinity of his government's doctrine – civil society and Dialogue among Civilizations – to the norms advocated by the European countries.

Therefore, the following scenarios could be envisaged in prospective relations:

First, the triggering of the snapback mechanism by the European parties to the JCPOA and the referral of Iran's nuclear case to the United Nations Security Council within the next six months with the aim of exerting massive pressure for fundamental changes in the Iranian government's policies.

This would result in widespread and unimaginable insecurity in the Middle East, the ramifications of which would affect the interests of various parties in the region. Iran's strategic patience policy would be exhausted if this scenario is realised, and the region would experience a wide range of shocking events leading to massive unrest. On the domestic level, a group that is less willing to use diplomatic methods to solve crises will come to power, adopting a much different approach than even that of the current government, and thus increasing domestic unrest in Iran due to economic problems and more authoritarianism in Iran's internal politics sphere.

Second, the official return of the United States to the JCPOA and some kind of compromise on its reform, for example, and the deadlines of the schedules that we are approaching the end of.

This would result in some form of peace, albeit limited, until the next US presidential elections.

Third, a tacit agreement between Iran and the West to contain the tension without the official return of the United States to the JCPOA, but with its coordination and support. In this scenario, Iran can obtain levels of economic benefits, oil exports and the de-escalation of US sanctions in exchange for limiting the level of uranium enrichment, for example, up to 20%, as well as re-activating surveillance cameras and expanding the access of the IAEA. This scenario is more likely than the previous one considering existing problems such as the pressure of public opinion, the uncertainty of the fate of the next US elections and the inability of the United States to give executive guarantees of adherence to the JCPOA by the next administration.

This would prevent the escalation of the current crisis and manage it until the next US elections.

Fourth, the creation of a new mechanism that is similar to the JCPOA but includes concerns unaddressed in the previous agreement. In this regard, the Iranian Foreign Minister in actual fact spoke about the possibility of creating a new agreement with the West in his recent speech. In this scenario, it is possible to define performance guarantees for the parties, as well as the penalties for violation by any party. The integration of the powers in Iran’s political structure increases the possibility of realising this scenario from Iran’s side. But the problem is that there is not enough time for the United States due to the closeness of its presidential elections and the unrealistic prediction of some European governments of the occurrence of a revolution in Iran and a regime change in the near future as a result of internal unrest, which discourages them from taking steps towards the realisation of this scenario. The climate created by the American and European public opinion does not support this scenario either.

This scenario would lead to relatively greater and more durable stability in the region and relations between Iran and Europe.

Fifth, a combination of the second and fourth scenario, with a round of confidential security negotiations with Europe for a comprehensive agreement beyond the nuclear issue that takes into account the concerns of Iran and Europe and has a specific implementation plan with guarantees. If the parties agree, discussions pertaining to Syria, Yemen and missile defence can be considered, provided the balance of power among all the countries in the region. However, media exposure of this possible agreement will endanger its survival.

This scenario would result in the management of the current multi-layered crisis and the engineering of a new economic security order between Iran and Europe that serves the interests of all parties. This agreement could also include other effective actors in the Middle East. If realised, it would create stability and security that has not been seen since the First World War.

However, the success of the fifth scenario depends on decision makers' real understanding of the deterioration of the current situation and prioritisation of it in their series of regional actions. It cannot not be realised without the serious determination and considerable flexibility of the all parties.


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