On Tuesday 12 March, the European People’s Party (EPP) Vice President Sandra Kalniete presented a report to the European Parliament calling for the EU to reassess its relationship with Russia. It was a small intervention which many will have missed. Kalniete said that “the EU should stand ready to consider adopting further sanctions if Russia's violation of international law continues.”
The EPP is right to highlight the aggressive behaviour of Russia. The recognition of the need to sanction Russia, however, invariably raises another more worrying issue: the links between Russia and Iran, and the ways in which sanctions on the two countries are intertwined. It is the nature of these relationships that warrants more than ever our very close attention.
Like Russia, Iran has proved itself again and again to be both blatantly two faced and a serial bad actor on the world stage, posing a threat to Europe’s interests domestically and abroad. The regime openly supports and funds terrorist organisations around the world - including Hezbollah in Lebanon - and has used proxy wars in Syria and Yemen as a means to expand its regional hegemony and influence in the Middle East.
Abroad, Iran disregards international norms and continues to actively sponsor attacks and assassination attempts on European soil, including a number of high profile cases in the last year. In October 2018, a thwarted attack in Denmark led the Danish government to recall its ambassador from Tehran, while the Dutch government this year accused Iran of being behind four attempted attacks in Europe. At home, the human rights situation in Iran also continues to deteriorate with abuses by the police force and arbitrary arrests commonplace. Last year, the regime arrested over 7,000 dissidents in what Amnesty International described as a “year of shame.” It has also arrested more than 35 women for removing their headscarves to protest the legally mandated head covering. European dual citizens have even been arrested on trumped up spying charges.
These factors alone make a compelling case for the EU to impose sanctions before even considering Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Instead of sanctioning this behaviour, however, the EU is working to circumvent economic sanctions imposed by the US. The European vehicle for facilitating trade with Iran, INSTEX was set up this year in an attempt to ensure that goods and funds can still flow into the country from European businesses. Suddenly, it is the EU that is now looking decidedly two faced, openly recognising its nefarious behaviour but wishing to turn a blind eye to make money.
The strategic importance of recognising the Russian and Iranian selective indifference to international order reinforces the need to sanction Iran, especially given the ever-deepening relationship between Tehran and Moscow. Efforts by the leaders of both countries to become more closely associated are increasing as they expand financial, trading and military ties in an effort to decrease their reliance on Western trade while benefiting from it.
Iran sees mutual benefit from Russian investment as a solution to its increasing economic isolation from the West, most notably as a result of US sanctions. For its part, Russia gains Iran as a strategic asset in the Middle East and a way to grow its influence in Central Asia which it increasingly views as its strategic domain - and a return to its old Empire.
This collaboration has included a $5 billion (€4.4 billion) loan from Russia to Iran earlier this year, and Russian support in building a nuclear power plant in Iran. In July of 2018, Iranian official Ali Akbar Velayati, a key advisor to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, boasted that Russia stands “ready to invest $50bn in Iran’s oil and gas sectors.”
More worrying still are the hidden financial links between the two countries - so-called ”dirty money” that Russia uses to increase its ally’s strategic reach - with cash flows which evidence suggests are considerable. A US Treasury report last year found that Iran had funnelled hundreds of millions of dollars through Russia to terrorist groups in the Middle East. Russia has used schemes such as this to circumvent US sanctions on Iran, covertly smuggling funds into the country to sustain the regime’s control.
In this context, it is noteworthy that Iran was included on a European Commission “dirty money” blacklist last month but that Russia was not. EPP lawmakers were amongst those to object to Russia’s exclusion from the list, arguing that ignoring Russia weakens the force of the designation. When it comes to money laundering, Russia and Iran are two sides of the same coin.
A strategy to constrain Russia’s destructive inclinations is inextricably linked to preventing Iran from acting with impunity on the world stage. Calls to sanction Russia must be supplemented by efforts to address the channels being developed to circumvent US sanctions on Iran. The established flow of black money between the two countries shows how sanctions targeting one state alone are not enough.
The EU must recognise how intertwined the two countries are as well as the necessity of the taking a ‘whole of the Union’ approach to bringing the aggressive behaviour of both regimes to an end. The EPP taking a firmer stance on Russia is a positive step in this direction and must be strengthened by similar actions on Iran.
Sir Graeme Lamb is the former Director of UK Special Forces, Commander of the British Field Army and part of the Advisory Board of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI).