Europeans and Americans coordinated a decisive tightening of sanctions on Iran. Their strategy will ultimately be vindicated if a negotiated deal comes through and could prove counter-productive if not.
The close coordination with the US that Europeans have established on the Iranian issue continued in 2012 with a new tightening of sanctions, which for the first time had a visible impact on Iran’s economy. In January, the EU adopted sanctions banning imports of Iranian crude oil, petroleum products, and key equipment; freezing the assets of the Iranian central bank; and prohibiting trade in gold, precious metals, and diamonds between EU member states and the Iranian central bank. These sanctions entered into force on 1 July in spite of the counter-measures taken by Iran. European resolve helped ease differences of views and interests with the US. The EU is in favour of targeted sanctions but opposed to a general trade embargo; and it does not want to bar the Iranian central bank from all activity like the US does.
Alongside British, French, and German diplomats, the EU delegation in Washington played a significant role by organising briefings of key congressmen and staffers on Capitol Hill to defend European conceptions and interests, for example by making sure that SWIFT (the financial transactions clearing house based in Belgium) or the Shah Deniz gas consortium (which includes an Iranian company as well as EU ones) were not hit by American sanctions. High Representative Catherine Ashton and Helga Schmidt of the EEAS also negotiated with Iran in Istanbul, Baghdad, and Moscow, thus keeping the door open to a peaceful deal. But the EU3 remained key in the discussions with the US, and managed to rally other member states for the new rounds of sanctions – even Sweden, which has misgivings about the sanctions policy.
While some European objectives were met – like avoiding a regional war and punishing Iran for flouting the non-proliferation treaty (NPT) and UN resolutions – President Barack Obama reminded the world that ultimately the EU policy pursued in conjunction with the US will be vindicated only if a deal is found. In March, he declared that he would not accept a nuclear Iran and rejected a strategy of containment, thereby making military intervention more likely for 2013 or later.