Any country’s foreign policy is subject to the interaction of that country’s domestic factors with outside circumstances. Kurt Lewin1 expressed a country’s foreign policy in the following formula,
where B stands for behaviour or foreign policy, f for function or measures taken, P for player, and E for environment. Four different cases are conceivable in the interaction between player and environment:
1. The player may be powerful but the environment unfavourable.
2. The environment is highly favourable but the player incompetent.
3. The environment is unfavourable and the player is not powerful.
4. The player is powerful and active and the environment favourable.
In terms of the interaction of psychological factors and values, four cases again are plausible:
1. The player agrees with the international order and wishes to be integrated in it but the international order refuses to accept this.
2. The international order welcomes the integration of a certain player, but the player is critical of the order and refuses to join it.
3. Both sides are critical of one another.
4. Both sides accept one another.
Rebellious and unconventional regimes which usually emerge after a revolution bring about the first and third cases; the international community is not willing to accept such regimes since they tend to question existing regulations and norms or would be misfits in the international order because of the new values and structures that they have created. An example of the first case is the first French republic formed after the French Revolution, since the very essence of republicanism was in conflict with all aristocratic regimes. An example of the third case is the Bolsheviks who rose to power after the October Revolution of 1917, the world’s only communist order and one which disagreed with capitalism. In actuality, the international order is conservative in nature and cannot tolerate an incongruous element within itself. With time, however, both sides (the incongruous player and the international order) tend to relax their original stances. That is how a state such as the former Soviet Union all of a sudden was officially recognised by western Europe in 1924 following several years of Western propaganda and even military attacks against it.
The Islamic Republic of Iran is another manifestation of the third case: a regime originating in the revolution of 1979, challenging simultaneously the injustice of the previous monarchy and injustice all around the globe. The Islamic Revolution was critical of the oppressive nature of the international order and sought universal values, just as the French and October Revolutions did. Meanwhile, the international order—which confronted an Islamic regime for the first time—was sceptical about really accepting such a state. This was especially true given that the revolutionary slogans of the new state at times targeted the main body of the international order, i.e., the United Nations. This is maybe why all the world’s most powerful countries, although very much divided in the bipolar global order, adopted a common attitude towards the Islamic Republic. Yet, as with revolutionary Russia and France, both Iran and the world’s major powers (excluding, of course, the United States) eased their original standpoints, relations between the two sides gradually being normalised.
This paper discusses changes in Iran–Europe ties, focusing on three distinct periods: the final years of the bipolar global order; the era of US–Europe compromise; and the era of Europe’s bid for an independent stance on global issues.
The End of the Cold War
During the latter part of the Cold War, Iran–Europe ties were heavily influenced by the state of relations between Iran and the United States. Yet there were those in the Islamic Republic who hoped to exploit the covert rivalry between Europe and the United States in their own favour and draw Europe closer to Iran (one such hopeful was Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, the first president of Iran). The Islamic Revolution coincided with the launch of the second phase of the Cold War following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Despite the relatively good US–Soviet ties of the 1970s, tensions remained high between the two superpowers over the arms race and their rivalry in the Third World, leading ultimately to a deadlock in their relations.
In the circumstances, Europe had no alternative but to align itself with Washington and maintain a united Western front, despite its old economic and trade rivalries with the United States. These inevitable rivalries were starkly reflected in a speech by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 in which he threatened to end US military support to Europe. The tensions between Europe and the United States entered a new phase after a similar threat was made by President Richard Nixon in the 1970s; extensive agreements between the United States and the Soviet Union followed these remarks. The beginning of the second stage of the Cold War, nevertheless, diminished and even set aside US–European rivalry in the context of the overall military danger.
The bipolarity dominating the world ultimately derived, of course, from the socio-economic split between the two camps; this does not mean, however, that cultural challenges were unimportant. The code of values of the Western bourgeoisie—democracy, individualism and other cultural norms—is mostly proclaimed under the highly ambiguous and contradictory label of “human rights”, which was employed instrumentally by the US foreign policy machine and proved its functional efficiency at the Helsinki Summit of 1975. The Europeans took a lesson from the American experience and in the 1970s and 1980s annexed certain provisions to the already existing package of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, employing them in their foreign relations. Observing human rights gradually became a precondition for enjoying special relations with Europe. The Paris Charter of 1990 transformed the Conference for Security and Co-operation in Europe into the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), allocating sections of its overall activities to supervising the implementation of human rights in member states.
It was in such a climate that the Islamic Republic of Iran was subjected to common attack by Western states, many of its legal and political strategies, values, principles and laws being challenged on the grounds of human rights. The climax of these value-oriented conflicts was the case of Salman Rushdie, in which the individualistic ideals of the West stood in their entirety against the collectivist and religious perspectives of the Islamic Republic. Iran’s leaders accused the West of attempting to disseminate an image of Iran as being backward and violent. Films such as Not without My Daughter (1990), made in Israel (ally of the West), were seen by Iran as intended to prevent the promotion of the Islamic Revolution among the world’s Muslims. The strategy adopted by Western states was naturally comprehensive, focusing simultaneously on cultural, political, economic and even military objectives.
The Iran–Iraq War
The stance of Europe towards the Iran–Iraq War clearly illustrates its general approach, and since this approach had practical consequences, that stance can indeed be considered the comprehensive symbol of western Europe’s strategy vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic.
European states can generally be divided into two political and economic classes. Countries such as France and England, which have a long tradition of playing first- or second-rate roles in international politics, always have a political bearing, whereas countries such as Germany and Italy, whom history has obliged to take a back seat politically, have been limited to fulfilling trade roles. France and England supported Iraq openly during the war and opposed Iran’s principled positions. This was fully in line with their economic interests: France and Iraq had signed macroeconomic contracts during the 1970s, including one for the construction of the Temooz atomic plant. France also enjoyed satisfactory trade relations with Iraq’s Arab allies in the region, as did Britain (trade between the British and Saudis reached £900 million in 1970).
With the outbreak of the Iran–Iraq War, both France and Britain gave Iraq their full support, which was coterminous with selling large amounts of arms to the region’s Arab countries. In 1981, Saudi Arabia and Qatar bought seventeen billion francs worth of arms from France, most of which went to their navies. The Sawari project for reconstructing the Saudi navy rewarded France with fourteen billion francs in return for eight million hours of work.
In 1981, France started selling several Mirage jetfighters and Exocet missiles to Iraq. The change of presidents that year (Francois Mitterrand replacing Valéry Giscard d’Estaing) did not alter France’s policy towards Iraq.
France’s military support of Iraq reached its zenith in 1983 and 1985: in those years their arms trade exceeded $2 billion. France’s antagonism towards Iran was not limited to selling weapons to Iraq, but included support for the illegal Iranian opposition.
Britain’s stance towards Iran during the war appeared more moderate, even though London, too, favoured reinforcing Iraq’s military. To give an example, Britain sold fifty Chieftain tanks to Iraq in the early years of the war. Britain’s non-military exports to Iraq were also on the rise. They reached £665 million in 1986, making Britain the second largest supplier of goods to Iraq.
Tons of British weapons were also being bought by the states on the southern coast of the Persian Gulf, effectively an indirect dispatching of arms to Iraq. With the publication of a number of classified documents after the war, it became clear that British aid to Iraq was far larger than had been thought at the time. The IMX company—the British Foreign Ministry happens to be one of its largest shareholders—gave considerable aid to Iraq in establishing protection mechanisms for Exocet missiles in 1984. Furthermore, key British statesmen such as Norman Lamont were accused of enabling the financial resources necessary for dispatching arms to Iraq. The Matrix Churchill company, too, was accused of exporting weapons to Iraq.
Countries such as Italy and Germany, however, merely acted as impartial merchants during the war. As the West apparently did not intend to forsake and isolate Iran absolutely, Germany came to assume the highly sensitive role of a liaison or mediator between the two sides. In July 1984, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the German foreign minister, arrived in Tehran and stated explicitly that any attempt to isolate Iran was a mistake. Yet Germany’s role, like that of other European states, was equivocal. In November that same year, Genscher visited Baghdad and increased German aid to Iraq. Classified documents later proved that German companies helped Iraq produce chemical weapons. German newspapers also disclosed that Germany had given vast aid to Iraq through Egypt. This aid concerned weapons of mass destruction, described as the equivalent of nuclear weapons by those German papers.
Italy acted similarly throughout the Iran–Iraq War. If we were to distinguish the German and Italian governments from the two countries’ weapons manufacturing companies, then the two states could be said to have adopted an impartial approach throughout the war. These companies, however, are strongly dependent upon their governments, and the destructive aid they gave to Iraq was not without state permission.
In sum, the stance of the European states towards Iran was very similar to that which they had adopted towards the Soviet Union from 1917 to 1923. Iranian leaders believe the West was the prime mover behind Iraq’s war against Iran, and that the war was part of a greater machination against the Islamic Revolution to prevent the strengthening, revitalisation and unification of Islamic movements under Iran. In the eyes of Iran’s leaders, there was no difference between the United States and Europe since each sold weapons to both sides of the conflict. Iranian leaders did not even differentiate between the United States, the Soviet Union and Europe; they regarded them as one united front of superpowers against Iran. That is why, when the powers reached consensus on ending the war, the US warship Vincennes shot down an Iranian civilian airliner over the Persian Gulf, killing all 290 people on board and forcing Iran to accept the UN ceasefire resolution, no. 598, on 18 July 1988.
The immediate post-war era witnessed events that few could have foretold and which took place with such rapidity as to render useless any long-term political programme or scenario. The Soviet Union disintegrated, leaving the United States as the indisputable power of a unipolar global order. Taking advantage of the Iraqi leaders’ ignorance, the Americans used Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait as the perfect pretext to establish their vast presence in the Persian Gulf. This allowed them to control oil resources and routes, thus obliging their rivals, especially Russia, Japan and western Europe, to heed their instructions. With Russia no longer a power to be feared, the old-time rivalry of the United States, Japan and Europe naturally rose to the surface. But could Iran, which has always sought to take advantage of the covert hostilities between the United States and Europe, draw closer to Europe? This question was especially pertinent in light of the numerous qualitative changes in Iran that were conceivably attractive to the West, among which were President Rafsanjani’s policy of reconstruction and adjustment and the move away from some of the extreme attitudes of the past.
The Post-Soviet Era
The Soviet collapse opened up numerous possible scenarios. Undoubtedly, the United States would do all it could to control global conditions and dominate its rivals. But smaller powers, too, would seek to establish or extend their status. The Third World, however, is divided into the two categories of the relatively rich (those possessing raw and strategic materials) and the poor. The latter group would be forgotten while the former would be the focus of new economic rivalries. In such circumstances, it would be very likely that Europe, as a rival of the United States, would woo Iran as a rich Third World state in conflict with Washington. There were, nonetheless, major obstacles to this development, the most important being a lack of clarity in the two sides’ intentions and orientations. Extremist groups still enjoyed power and influence in Iran. Yet it seemed that a new trend in favour of pursuing Iran’s national interests, instead of ideological goals, and accepting the state as a national sovereignty—as opposed to a pan-Islamic locus—was formulating itself within the Iranian polity.
The official paradigm governing Iran’s foreign policy, as expressed in the Islamic Republic’s constitution, is that Islamic Iran should create a multifaceted unity with other Islamic countries. This is because according to Islam all the people of the world are divided into Muslims and non-Muslims. Muslims themselves are divided into the two groups of mohareb and non-mohareb, and while the latter group may be co-operated with, the former must be eliminated through fighting.2 Again, since Islamic Iran sees it as its duty to lead the struggle against oppression, it must join forces with all the oppressed people of the world, be they Muslim or non-Muslim, to form a universal front of the oppressed which shall struggle against the United States, Europe, Russia and other colonial powers. There is also a short-term objective here: toppling Western client regimes among Islamic countries. The unity of Islamic nations will not come about unless such regimes are overthrown.
The one thing completely forgotten in this context is the national interest of Iran and its citizens. It also became clear that autocratic military regimes in Islamic countries could be a threat to Iran, whereas Europe, the United States and even Israel never perpetrated against it what Saddam Hussein did. The war with Iraq shed light on realities that caused a diminution in the Islamic idealism of Iranian leaders, particularly insofar as it demonstrated that the Islamic world’s Sunni majority would under no circumstances yield to the leadership of Shi’ite Iran.
The way was thus paved for accepting reality, the necessity of a national sovereignty and the primacy of national interest over ideology. This acceptance occurred together with global developments and the exposure of the rivalry between the United States and Europe. Signing the Maastricht Treaty in 1991, Europe entered a new phase in its foreign relations. One of the three major principles of Maastricht was a unified security and foreign policy. Iran was naturally one of the concerns of the unified foreign policy of the thirteen European Union member states. A former French ambassador to Tehran once said that following the death of Imam Khomeini, Iran gradually became interested in Europe, with France being the first European country to which it turned—a fact that has its own complicated reasons. Between 1989 and 1992, Iran’s foreign trade enjoyed a unique growth; France had a special quota in this. French companies including Peugeot, Citroen, Alstom, Elf and Total signed important contracts with Iran, and France managed to rise from its poor rank of nineteen to its traditional rank of five or even four as Iran’s foreign trade partner.
Politically, Iran–Europe ties were clouded by ambivalence and contradictions. In December 1992, the Council of Europe, consisting of twelve member states, ratified the policy of critical dialogue with Iran to encourage the latter to adopt a more moderate stance externally and to observe the principles of democracy and human rights internally.
This fragile understanding, however, was buffeted by events which resembled conspiracies and sabotage. One such incident was the “Mykonos case”, so named after the Berlin restaurant in which a number of Kurdish dissidents were shot to death in 1992. A German court ruling in 1997 implicated Iranian agents and leaders in the killings. EU states summoned their ambassadors from Tehran, and Europe’s process of critical dialogue with Iran was temporarily halted. The ambassadors returned in November 1997 and talks reopened as Europeans now vested hope in the new approach of Mohammad Khatami, elected president the previous May. But periodic flare-ups in the Salman Rushdie case, the arrest of a spy or similar developments, consistently overshadowed Iran–Europe ties with hesitation and ambiguity.
Meanwhile, US pressure on European countries remained in effect. There was no longer a Soviet bloc to be feared, but there were other considerations that prevented the Europeans from adopting a foreign policy resolutely independent of the United States. The Balkan turmoil, economic uncertainties and the unclear nature of the new administration in Iran left European countries with no strong incentive to endanger their interests by alienating Washington in establishing serious ties with Iran.
Differences between the United States and Europe were gradually on the rise. Europe was seeking to distance itself from the destiny the United States had planned for it without forcing an outright breach. Simultaneously, Iran was undergoing a profound change in its domestic politics that would deliver the country’s future from uncertainty. The massive popular turnout in the 1997 presidential elections and Mohammad Khatami’s landslide victory irreversibly changed Iran’s course of development from non-democratic to democratic. Unquestionably, this huge change had a rapid impact on Iran’s foreign policies and orientations. From this perspective, the new era is one of realism and leave-taking of utopian tales and dreams that were always the source of many tensions and hostilities.
The tale of pan-Islamism in the framework of defending a unified umma (the whole community of Muslim believers) at a time when everyone was talking of nations, globalisation and diversity was nothing but a closing of the eyes to the real world. Previously, two such experiences had suffered ignominious defeat: that of Nasserism, which pursued the goal of one unified Arab state; and Baathism, which sought one unified Arab socialist nation. Furthermore, dividing the world into Muslim friends and non-Muslim enemies was very much like the bourgeois–proletariat dichotomy which had repeatedly demonstrated its inadequacy. An extreme stance on the Arab–Israeli conflict, ironically in a world where Palestinians and Israelis had sat alongside each other in many international conferences and called one another brothers, displayed a lack of wisdom that badly damaged Iran’s national interests.
It was in this context that Khatami’s discourse of détente and his proposal to the UN General Assembly that 2001 be named the Year of Dialogue among Civilisations gave the Islamic Republic of Iran a specific reputation without which no diplomatic effort on its part would have succeeded in getting substantial results. Détente was mostly targeted at the countries of the Arab League. In Khatami’s first year in office, Iran’s defence minister announced that Iran’s overriding priority was establishing ties with Persian Gulf states to obtain a regional security agreement that excluded foreign powers. Iran’s foreign minister began visiting Iran’s neighbours, declaring that Tehran sought to negotiate an agreement freeing the region of weapons of mass destruction and securing peace and stability through regional co-operation.
The proposal of a dialogue among civilisations contained rich and novel Iranian ideas and corrected Iran’s image which, because of extensive Western propaganda, had become one of advocating violence and terrorism. The civilisational dialogue idea won worldwide support. Italy’s invitation to President Khatami and his subsequent visits to France and particularly his meeting with the Pope favourably impressed Europeans. The French oil company Total and a number of Italian and German companies expressed their intention to invest in Iran despite US sanctions. There is of course a world of difference between ideals and practice. The body responsible for programming Iran’s diplomatic initiatives and exploiting the opportunities they create is the Foreign Ministry, which has a highly weak infrastructure and incompetent management. Its overabundant, narrow-minded non-specialists pursue their own petty good or absurd visions at the expense of the country’s national interests. This is why European states are unable to identify the right people to whom to make their proposals.
If Iran and Europe are regarded as “rational actors” (in line with Graham T. Allison’s trio model),3 they can be seen to enjoy common interests globally for various reasons. Both players’ conflict of interest with the United States’ drive to gain more power, their mutual need for goods and materials (Iran’s need for industrial goods and Europe’s need for oil, gas and other strategic raw materials), both parties’ concern over developments in the Middle East and in Russia, and many other issues, are all reasons why Iran and Europe should move closer to each other. But there are elements that would be unhappy with an improvement in Iran–Europe ties. Turkey and Israel are Iran’s regional rivals, and they would be upset by Iran’s moving out of isolation; they would definitely lose many of their current advantages in such an eventuality. Jewish and Israeli cultural organisations in Europe—for example, the France–Israel Art Exchange Society established in 1978 by Clementine Uzan, and newspapers such as L’Arche and France–Israel Information—campaign against Iran and put pressure on European officials to adopt anti-Iranian policies. Early in 1999, for example, France–Israel Information campaigned extensively against the visit of Iran’s foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, to Paris, condemning his preparation for Khatami’s visit to France, which eventually took place in October that year. It further wrote that Iran had recently built a missile whose prime target was Israel and that this weapon endangered the region. The paper added that those who consider Khatami a moderate are making a grave mistake.4
There are also lobbies in Iran that because of their specific mentality, narrow-mindedness, ignorance and also foreign infiltration, try to prevent the improvement of Iran–Europe ties by taking provocative actions. To give one example, when President Francois Mitterrand of France was scheduled to visit Iran, Shahpoor Bakhtiar—the last prime minister of the shah’s regime, who was exiled in Paris and posed absolutely no danger to the Islamic Republic—was murdered in August 1991. Mitterrand’s visit was subsequently cancelled. Some also consider the United States and Britain as the major obstacles to improving Iran–Europe ties since they regard Iran as their own domain. All these impediments, however, can be overcome provided both sides maintain alertness and awareness.
1. M. Bahgat Korany, “Les modèles de politique étrangère”, Revue internationale des sciences politique 26 (1974), pp. 76–103.
2. The Arabic term mohareb literally means a person who wages war. There is a technical difference among Shi’ite clerics as to whether a mohareb is a person who engages in armed conflict with the state or one who disrupts public order and threatens private property by armed means, i.e., a terrorist. Trans.
3. See Graham T. Allison and Philip Zelikow, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis, 2nd ed. (Reading, Mass.: Longman, 1999).
4. France–Israel Information, January, February and March 1999.