The European Union's Counterproductive Iran Sanctions

The Case for Pulling Back

Camera crews stake out the Iranian Embassy in central London before Britain's call for stronger economic sanctions on Iran. (Ki Price/Courtesy Reuters)

By signing on to wide-ranging sanctions against Iran in late January, the European Union made a bet that harsh economic penalties would finally push Iran to  comply with its international obligations, especially that it end its efforts to enrich uranium to weapons-grade level and accept a verifiable inspection regime under the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This is a long way from the "critical dialogue" framework the European Union favored throughout the 1990s, when it aimed to normalize ties with Tehran as a way of fostering domestic reform and empowering moderates. It is also a departure from the so-called EU-3 diplomacy of the last decade, whereby France, Germany, and the United Kingdom looked to negotiate a compromise with Iran on its nuclear program on behalf of the wider international community. In the past, even when Brussels threw its full weight behind UN sanctions -- for example, in December 2006 -- European officials were quick to follow up with statements highlighting their preference for diplomacy and engagement. (By January 2007 officials were calling for a "negotiated long-term solution.") This time, however, Europe seems more decisive. As European Council President Herman Van Rompuy explained earlier this month, "More pressure on Iran, more sanctions on Iran" is now the order of the day.

Despite what Iranian officials claim, the United States is not behind Europe's new stance. In fact, over the past two decades, the European Union has been surprisingly resistant to U.S. pressure. It regularly rejected the demands of the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations to embrace Washington's strategy of neutering the Islamic Republic through economic and political isolation. In 1996, for example, the Clinton administration passed the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILA), which imposed mandatory penalties on any foreign country that invested more than $20 million in Iran. In response, the European Union, through its then trade commissioner, the former British Cabinet

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