Since becoming head of the country’s religious structure since 1989, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has unrelentingly forced the doctrine of ‘West minus the US’ on different Iranian administrations. As one of the pillars of Iran’s foreign policy, this pronouncement has caused political standoffs at different junctures in the past. Today, this policy is once again being put to test as European nations say that they will stand by Iran to circumvent the US sanctions. But will they stand true to their word?
After the death of Iran’s leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in July 1989, Khamenei followed in the footsteps of his mentor’s anti-American policies. In July of 1989 the Assembly of Experts, which is tasked with the appointment of the new leader, was set to elect Khamenei as the next leader of Iran. Opposing the idea, Khamenei remarked, “I really don’t deserve the position.” This mentality resulted in him concluding that he was not in a position to risk his “highly crucial post” by abandoning his mentor’s legacy of maintaining that the US was the Great Satan.
From the American perspective, Iran is seen as a hostile country for two primary reasons. Firstly, Iran is considered to threaten US interests in the most energy-rich region of the world which obviously has both security and economic significance for the United States. Secondly, Iran is also seen as a direct threat to the existence of Israel whereas the security of the state of Israel is a major pillar of the US strategic thinking and foreign policy in the Middle East.
Iran’s relations with Europe have also been unstable during the last 30 years. In 1997, five years after the Mykonos assassinations (three Iranian-Kurdish opposition leaders and their translator were assassinated by gunmen who attacked the Greek Mykonos restaurant in Berlin), a German court identified the Iranian government as having “inspired, supported, and supervised” this terrorist act. Following the verdict, all European Union (EU) members recalled their ambassadors from Iran.
The Iran-EU relations quickly improved after this event due to the election of Mohammad Khatami, the reformist Iranian president. The August 2002 disclosures related to the existence of Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities, however, began one of the most complex international conflicts in the post-Cold War era. Several rounds of talks were held between Iranians and the European troika (Britain, France, and Germany), but US insistence on “zero uranium enrichment inside Iran” was a major obstruction for an agreement. The situation was well-defined by former British foreign secretary, Jack Straw. Speaking at a BBC panel in July 2013, he remarked, “We were getting somewhere, with respect, and then it’s a complicated story, the Americans actually pulled the rug from under Khatami’s feet and the Americans got what they didn’t want.”
John Sawers, one of the British negotiators and later chief of the MI6, told a member of the Iranian negotiating team that Washington would not tolerate even one nuclear centrifuge spinning in Iran. The talks subsequently collapsed in 2005.
One major flaw in the ‘West minus the US’ doctrine is that it doesn’t make logical sense to have friendly relations with the West as a political bloc when Iran constantly has hostile relations with the US as the leading state of that bloc. Europe followed America’s policies between 2002 and 2013 by imposing sanctions on Iran, including respecting the US extraterritorial sanctions. Once then president Barack Obama changed position and worked to end the Iran nuclear crisis, European nations followed suit. Obama argued that ending the nuclear crisis could open doors on detente and also improve relations between Iran and the US.
Shortly after inking the nuclear accord, however, Khamenei banned further talks with the US and thus closed the door on any possible improvement in US-Iran relations. “We agreed to hold talks with America only on the nuclear issue and for particular reasons” he remarked. “I have not authorised negotiations and [we] will not hold talks with them,” he said.
Currently, both Iran and the US maintain a mutual hostility with no foreseen opportunities for bilateral talks to emerge. This has led to almost enduring political impasses on issues including Syria, Iraq, and Israel. With this perpetual political tension between the two states, it was only a matter of time before the nuclear deal would collapse.
Today, Iran’s economy is feeling the pressure of US-imposed sanctions. European nations are about to set up a system to neutralise the US sanctions. Despite this determination by European nations, the US has let it be known that European banks and firms who engage in the EU initiative to protect trade with Iran will be at risk of being sanctioned by the US.
Will the EU continue to forge an autonomous foreign policy towards Iran and confront US sanctions? Informed European diplomats have admitted to Reuters that their efforts are symbolic and ultimately any decision by Iran to stay in the nuclear deal would be political and not based on European measures. If true, the doctrine of the ‘West minus the US’ once again is proven to be largely impractical.
Shahir ShahidSaless is a political analyst and freelance journalist writing primarily about Iranian domestic and foreign affairs. He is also the co-author of Iran and the United States: An Insider’s View on the Failed Past and the Road to Peace.