On 24 September 2019 the leaders of Germany, France and the United Kingdom (E3) issued a joint statement firmly placing responsibility (on the Islamic Republic of Iran) for the drone and missile attack (14 September 2019) on Saudi Arabia’s (KSA) Abqaiq oil complex, the largest crude oil stabilisation plant in the world, operated by the state-owned energy major Aramco. The statement urged Iran to ‘refrain from choosing provocation and escalation.’ This declaration represents, to date, the strongest language used by the E3 vis-à-vis Tehran since the US decision to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, the Iran Nuclear Deal). Such soft approach was largely motivated by the fact that E3 countries—all signatories and guarantors of the JCPOA—have been attempting to save the deal despite rising regional tensions.
The Iran-organised attack on Saudi Arabia was certainly the most spectacular, but only the most recent in a series causing EU governments to be increasingly concerned with Iran’s international behaviour. Interestingly, this creates the basis for the E3 position to align more closely to the smaller EU countries many of which are sceptical towards Tehran—having recently experienced the effects of Iran’s covert activities on their soil.
For instance, Iran was involved in the assassination of several Dutch nationals, firstly in Amsterdam in 2015 and then in The Hague in 2017. The individuals were targeted as part of Iran’s campaign against the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz (ASMLA). More recently, in October 2018, Iranian Intelligence officials operating in Denmark attempted to kill the leader of ASMLA who resides in the city of Ringsted near Copenhagen. Denmark responded by recalling its Ambassador to Tehran.
Despite voices reiterating the commitment to the JCPOA and ongoing efforts by France’s President, Emmanuel Macron, to mediate, E3-Iran relations suffered from the failure of measures such as the EU blocking statute, the Special Purpose Vehicle (SVP) and the E3’s INSTEX (Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges), aimed to reduce the impact of US sanctions on Iran. Tehran responded by reducing its commitments to parts of the JCPOA and raising tensions in the Gulf—the 2019 April-July period was characterised by covert sabotage and the hijacking of oil tankers by Iranian forces. This disrupted international maritime trade in the Strait of Hormuz including the international energy trade. Furthermore the UK was directly affected as Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) seized a British oil tanker, the Stena Impero, in late July 2019.
The attack forced Riyadh to reduce some 50% of its oil refining and dragged global crude output down by 5%. The attack has generated second thoughts in the UK about its participation in the JCPOA. The Euro-Gulf Information Centre will continue to monitor EU and E3 responses to Iran’s aggressive behaviour in the Middle East and the Islamic Republic’s covert operations in Europe. Tehran’s latest escalation may have paved the way for much needed European unity on the Iran dossier.
25 September 2019