Europeans maintained a united front and moved towards adopting an oil embargo – an impressive demonstration of their commitment to put pressure on Iran.
Europe’s objective in 2011 was to maintain unified pressure on Iran’s nuclear programme in the framework of UNSC Resolution 1929, avoid a regional conflagration, and at the same time leave the door open to serious dialogue. Iran had mixed feelings about the Arab Awakening and was left increasingly isolated by the weakening of its key ally Syria. Iran cracked down internally and the regime was accused by the US of involvement in an alleged plot to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington. The EU adopted human rights-related targeted sanctions in April and October. After an IAEA report in November pointed to an increased potential for the militarisation of Tehran’s nuclear programme, the E3 called for new sanctions. Since Russia and China would have opposed a UNSC resolution, the E3+3 tabled a resolution via the IAEA board, which was adopted by an almost unanimous vote.
In December, shortly after an attack by pro-regime students on the British embassy in Tehran, Europeans united around a new round of sanctions, which targeted 180 people and entities in the trade, financial and energy sectors. All the main players (including France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands) showed solidarity with the UK through various diplomatic demarches.
These measures fell short of an oil embargo, due mainly to resistance by Greece, which could not afford to renounce its cheap oil imports from Iran. However, European leaders downplayed this division as technical and temporary and informally pledged to target the Iranian central bank and hit oil exports in early 2012, with the support from Italy and Spain, which also rely on Iranian oil. (An oil embargo and further wide-ranging sanctions were eventually adopted in January 2012 against the background of growing tension about a possible blockade by Iran of the Strait of Hormuz.) The steps Europeans took in 2011 were an impressive demonstration of their commitment to the Iranian problem, particularly in the eyes of the US and Israel, which is increasingly nervous of Iran’s nuclear programme.