US and Iranian Strategic Competition: The Impact of the EU, EU3, and Non-EU European States

The various states that comprise the EU and non-EU Europe play a critical role in the competition between the US and Iran. Iran’s progress towards a nuclear weapons threshold capability – and evidence that it may be seeking to deploy nuclear armed missiles – has led to enhanced policy coordination between leaders in the US and Europe. In the face of a growing Iranian threat, Western governments have stepped up their efforts, including strong economic sanctions, to pressure Iran to fully comply with its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The role Europe plays is laid out in detail in a new analysis by CSIS entitled US and Iranian Strategic Competition: The Impact of the EU, EU3, and non-EU European States. This analysis is available on the CSIS website at:

The analysis shows that the EU states – and particularly the EU3 (the UK, France, and Germany) – are Washington’s most consistent allies in seeking to roll back Iran’s nuclear efforts. Although the approach of the EU and individual European states have differed from that of the US, disagreements with the US have focused more over tactics and timing than over the need to take strong steps to halt Iran’s progress towards nuclear weapons.

The UK and France also provide military support to the US and the Arab Gulf states.  While their force projection capabilities are limited and slowly dropping under the strain of budget reductions, British and French forces still play an important role in the Gulf and Red Sea, and their military advisors remain an influential factor in the competition between the US and Iran.

There are, however, important differences in approach and perspective. Many European nations are far more reluctant to risk the use of military forces than the US. Iran’s oil exports are important to several European states, in part because of easier credit terms and pricing. Additionally, most European states are less sympathetic to Israel than the US.

Iran has attempted to exploit these potential fault lines between the US and Europe. The Iranian leadership, and particularly President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, frequently state that Iran seeks partnership with Europe and tries to encourage Europe to pursue energy and trade deals that would separate it from the US.

Nevertheless, the US and EU approaches to Iran have steadily converged since 2002, following the discovery of Iran’s clandestine nuclear facilities at Natanz and Arak. In the years that have followed, the EU – under the leadership of EU3 – began a series of negotiations to persuade Iran to halt uranium enrichment and provide greater transparency as to the purpose of its nuclear program. After several years of failed bargains, EU negotiators gradually began to take a harder line toward Tehran, until the rhetoric and polices of European governments closely resembled those of the US.

The EU has unilaterally implemented punitive measures against the Islamic Republic’s defense and energy sectors. Working in partnership with the US as part of the P5+1 (comprised of the US, the UK, China, France, Russia, and Germany), the EU3 have supported UN sanctions and lobbied both non-Western members of the Security Council to approve of UN resolutions targeted at Iran’s nuclear program.

European countries outside the EU play a smaller role in US-Iranian competition. Their presence can be felt most strongly when they work to broker compromise between both parties, when they broadly track with the EU and by extension the US, or when they pursue opportunistic policies in opposition to the established order.

The EU, and the other European states that share its strategic views, remain committed to a dual track approach to Iran consisting of sanctions and incentives, but they have also largely sided with the US and resigned from mediating between the US and Iran. Experience has shown that US-EU unity presents a formidable challenge to Iran, while division provides the Islamic Republic space to advance its interests.
The sanctions on Iranian oil imports that the EU agreed to in early 2012, and subsequent sanctions later in 2012, have reinforced Europe’s status as an invaluable partner of the US. The EU states have both adapted to reflect US positions when they have proved valid, and played a role in persuading the US to see the merits of incentives and flexibility in dealing with Iran’s legitimate needs.

It is important to note, however, that US and European cooperation is centered on pursuing diplomatic options and sanctions. There is no unclassified indication that any discussions have taken place between the US and EU over preventive military options if diplomacy and sanctions fail, or what level of discussion may have taken place at a more restrictive level between the US and key allies like the UK and France. Many European states may not support, or may actively oppose, any shift to the use of force. Europe and NATO have actively begun to plan for missile defenses, but there has been little public discussion concerning the trade-offs involved in containing Iran, deterring a nuclear Iran, and options like “extended deterrence.”

The contents of the analysis are as follows:

EU    5
Evolving US-EU Relations    6
Political Cooperation Based on Mutual Interests    6
Interdependent Economic Relations    7
NATO and the EU Security Apparatus    8
The Impact of European Arms Sales    9
Figure 12.1: European Arms Transfer Agreements with Iran and the GCC, 2008-2011 (in millions)    10
Figure 12.2: European Arms Transfer Deliveries to Iran and the GCC, 2008-2011 (in millions)    10
Evolving Iran-EU Relations    11
Iran-EU Political Relations since 2000: A Decade of Decline    12
Iran-EU Economic Relations    15
Figures 12.3 and 12.4: EU-Iran Trade, 2007-2012    18
Figure 12.5: Chronology of EU & US Approaches to Iran    20
Figure 12.6: Cancelled European Land-based System    24
The UK and the Broader Role of the UK, France, and Germany in “The Six”    25
The UK and Power Projection in the Gulf    27
France and “The Six”    30
France and Power Projection in the Gulf    31
Germany and “The Six”    32
Germany and Power Projection in the Gulf    33
Switzerland    34
Belarus    36

This report is part of a comprehensive survey of US and Iranian competition, it is currently being updated, and the revised versions will appear shortly. The current version does, however, provide an analysis that is current in most respects.

Comments and suggestions would be most helpful. They should be sent to Anthony H. Cordesman at

This report is part of a series of chapters in an electronic book on US and Iranian competition. Other chapters include:

I. Introduction

II. Types and Levels of Competition - This chapter looks at the various arenas in which Iran and the US compete for influence.

III. US and Iranian Strategic Competition: The Conventional and Asymmetric Dimensions - This chapter looks at Iran’s military forces in detail and the balance of forces in the Gulf region.

IV. US and Iranian Strategic Competition: The Missile and Nuclear Dimensions - This chapter looks at Iran’s missile and nuclear forces.

V. U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition: The Sanctions game: Energy, Arms Control, and Regime Change - This chapter examines the impact of sanctions on the Iranian regime, Iran’s energy sector, and the prospects for regime change in Tehran.

VI. US and Iranian Strategic Competition in the Gulf States and the Arabian Peninsula - This chapter examines the competition between the US and Iran and how it affects Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, the UAE, Oman, and Qatar.

VII. Iraq After US Withdrawal: US Policy and the Iraqi Search for Security and Stability - This chapter examines in detail the role Iran has played in Iraq since 2003 and how the US has tried to counter it.

VIII Part I. US-Iranian Competition in the Levant: Part I: Competing Strategic Interests and the Military and Asymmetric Dimensions of Regional Instability - This section analyzes how the US and Iran compete – albeit indirectly – in terms of the regional military and asymmetric balances.

VIII Part II. US-Iranian Competition in the Levant: Part II: The Proxy War in Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories & Syria - This section expands on the six core arenas of the US-Iranian competition in the Levant.

IX. The United States and Iran: Competition involving Turkey and the South Caucasus - This chapter analyzes the US and Iranian competition over influence in Armenia, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

X. Competition in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and Pakistan – This chapter examines the important role Iran plays in the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan and how the US and Iranian rivalry affects Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia.

XI. US and Iranian Strategic Competition: The Impact of China and Russia - This chapter examines the complex and evolving relationships between China, Russia, Iran, and the US.

XIII. US and Iranian Strategic Competition: Peripheral Competition Involving Latin America and Africa - This chapter examines the extent and importance of the competition between the US and Iran in the rest of the world.

XIV. Policy Implications