EU Imposes (Very) Limited Sanctions on Iran Following Assassinations

This March 23, 2014, file photo shows European Union flags in front of the European Union Commission building in Brussels, Belgium.

By Published on January 12, 2019

Iran has been responsible for a series of assassination attempts in Europe over the past several years, according to European leaders. Some of them have been successful. The European Union responded on Tuesday by placing sanctions on the financial assets of an Iranian intelligence agency and two of its leaders. That’s not enough.

The plots have left two Dutch nationals of Iranian origin dead in the Netherlands. There was a thwarted plot to bomb a rally in France. In Denmark, Iranians tried to assassinate an Arab-Iranian separatist leader. That attempt, too, was foiled.

Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke tweeted, “Very encouraging that EU has just agreed on new targeted sanctions against Iran in response to hostile activities and plots being planned and perpetrated in Europe, including Denmark. EU stands united — such actions are unacceptable and must have consequences.”

Iran Sanctions

These targeted sanctions are welcome as far as they go. They serve as a symbol of a new direction since the EU signed the Iran Nuclear Deal in 2015. But they are little more than that. They amount to a slap on the wrist.

Prior to the Iran Nuclear Deal, the EU had a significant sanction program against Iran. The United Nations passed a series of resolutions, beginning in 2006, to halt Iran’s nuclear program. They included a punishing ban on Iranian oil imports and a freeze on assets at Iran’s central bank. The U.N. also developed a long list of goods that couldn’t be exported to Iran. These sanctions were crippling for the Iranian economy.

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Starting in 2013, however, the EU and the Obama White House began easing sanctions as a prelude to the Iran Nuclear Deal. By early 2016, almost all sanctions were scrapped. The only ones left in place were those that were tied to halting nuclear weapons and ballistic missile development.

President Trump reversed course on this once again, putting even stronger sanctions in place. The EU, however, continued relaxing theirs. The issue of Iranian sanctions has been a sore point between the Trump administration and the EU.

A Continued Problem

The EU has rarely been eager to make economic sacrifices to punish other countries’ infractions. That problem has worsened lately. The EU is unable to act from a position of strength, as many of its members have fragile economies and enormous public debt. This weakens the whole EU’s political and economic position, and it limits its viable options. Reinstating broad sanctions would increase energy costs and close off European firms’ access to lucrative Iranian markets. It is a price that many EU members are simply not willing to pay.

Evidence shows clearly that Iran wants to grow its nuclear weapons program. President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are right to fight to get the EU back on board with broad sanctions against Iran. They shouldn’t get their hopes up, though. There’s little sign the EU’s pattern is changing. The EU appears no more willing than before to make the sacrifices it really ought to make in order to contain dangerous states.


Matthew Hamilton is a secondary History and Philosophy teacher who has visited or lived in 107 countries. He is also a former missionary with Youth With A Mission and has written for the Institute on Religion & Democracy and Good News Magazine.

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