Israel’s Iran sensitivity should not be ignored by the EU

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will travel to Europe next week to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and possibly British Premier Theresa May. The tour will give him the opportunity to present Israel’s position on Iran’s nuclear aspirations and its role in destabilizing the Middle East. Intelligence officials from the three leading European countries have already been briefed on recent Israeli findings gleaned from captured Iranian documents. The visit of Netanyahu in Europe is of large significance because it is taking place after the announcement of US withdrawal from JCPOA and in a period during which the European Union is attempting to keep the deal alive.

The EU approach vis-à-vis Iran is being formulated by a greedy appetite for business. After July 2015, it did not waste time. Data from the European Commission show that in 2016 – the first fiscal year after the JCPOA implementation – EU imports from Iran reached €5.5 billion, representing an increase of 344.8%, and EU exports amounted to €8.2 billion, an increase of 27.8%. In 2017, EU imports from Iran went beyond €10.1 billion, and exports to Iran peaked at €10.8 billion. In general, the cooperation between the two sides covers sectors such as agriculture, banking and finance, civil nuclear cooperation, energy, industry, entrepreneurship and transportation.

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Several examples of European countries envisioning contracts for their companies in Iran can be given. But the case of Italy deserves special attention. One of the most vocal supporters of JCPOA in Brussels is High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, of Italian nationality. Before the introduction of the EU sanctions against Tehran, bilateral trade between Italy and Iran had reached a record turnover of some €7 billion in 2011. Italian statistics demonstrate that bilateral trade flourished again in 2016 and 2017 amounting to €2.5 billion and €5.1 billion, respectively. Italy is, inter alia, exporting agricultural and chemical products, electrical machines, plastic material and wood, and is importing leather, metal and oil products, minerals and textiles.

WITHIN THIS context, Italian companies have already signed important business accords. In July 2017, for example, Italian railway company Ferrovie dello Stato agreed with Iran Railways to build a high-speed railway between the cities of Qom and Arak. Moreover, last January the investment arm of Italian state-owned holding Invitalia inked a framework credit agreement to fund investments worth up to €5 billion with two Iranian institutions, namely the Bank of Industry and Mine and the Middle East Bank. Even after the US withdrawal from JCPOA, Italy might continue on the same path. Reportedly, the Italian ambassador to Tehran has said seven large Italian companies that are active in the field of renewable energies will visit Tehran in June to attend a conference with Iran’s Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Organization – known as SATBA – for exploring ways of mutual cooperation.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with business ambitions, especially for countries such as Italy that are desperately searching for export-oriented strategies to boost their economies. The problem starts when business fever leads to ignorance of critical security parameters as the ones raised by the only democratic country in the Middle East, Israel. Against this backdrop, Mogherini is keen on repeating that the Iran nuclear deal is working perfectly, while in April, Rome prevented the EU from agreeing to new sanctions against Tehran for its ballistic-missile program. The EU needs consensus to proceed accordingly and a single state has the power to block the whole process.

Netanyahu’s visits in Europe will remind the most powerful EU member-states about Israel’s sensitivity stemming from the policies of the Islamic Republic. Despite Italy’s skepticism – and although the EU approach is not expected to be fully aligned with Jerusalem’s security priorities – some progress has already been made. Berlin, London and Paris have begun to seriously take into account Iran’s ballistic missile program and its destabilizing regional activities. Also, moderate European voices, such as those of German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and his Polish counterpart, Jacek Czaputowicz, play down the scenario of complementary mechanisms and measures to protect European companies doing business in Iran against American sanctions.

Turning a blind eye to the potential transformation of the Middle East according to Tehran’s hegemonic, anti-Israel aspirations, the EU is postponing difficult foreign policy decisions for later, as it has done with the debt and the refugee crises. The clock does not turn back, though. Ephemeral profits are less important than long-term stability.

The writer is a non-resident senior associate at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies and a lecturer at the European Institute of Nice and the Democritus University of Thrace.