European Union looking to expand sanctions on Iran following attack on Israel

The EU's top diplomat Josep Borrell speaks after a VTC meeting of EU foreign ministers, 16 April 2024.
The EU's top diplomat Josep Borrell speaks after a VTC meeting of EU foreign ministers, 16 April 2024. Copyright FRANCOIS LENOIR/EUROPEAN UNION
Copyright FRANCOIS LENOIR/EUROPEAN UNION
By Mared Gwyn JonesAida Sanchez Alonso
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The European Union will "start the necessary work" to hit Iran with heavier sanctions after Saturday's aerial attack on Israel, the bloc's top diplomat has said.

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Speaking following an exceptional virtual meeting of EU foreign ministers on Tuesday, Josep Borrell said he would ask his services to study the possibility of expanding existing EU sanctions against Iranian drone technology.

It would see the current sanctions regime - established in July 2023 to punish Iran for aiding Putin's war machine with unmanned drones - expanded to include missiles and to also cover Iran's proxies in the region.

The bloc would also weigh the possibility of listing the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organisation, he said, while stressing that such a move would be difficult since the military branch has not yet been associated with an act of terrorism in any of the EU's member states.

The expanded sanctions were pitched by "some member states" during the meeting, Borrell said, but refrained from confirming which capitals. German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock and Austria's Alexander Schallenberg both called for the move earlier on Tuesday.

It came as EU foreign ministers scrambled to prevent a further escalation of the conflict gripping the Middle East by calling on all sides to exercise restraint. EU countries have so far doubled down on their commitment to Israel's security whilst urging Netanyahu's government to exercise caution to prevent the conflict from spilling over into all-out war.

"The region is at the edge of the abyss (...) and we have to move away from it," Borrell said, adding that a miscalculated step in a tit-for-tat between Israel and Iran could lead to a war that "no one wants."

Sanctions on Iranian drones could be 'expanded'

The European Union has a raft of sanctions already in place against the Iranian regime, including trade restrictions, travel bans and asset freezes.

Some of these sanctions have been imposed in response to Tehran’s human rights violations - including following the death of Mahsa Amini in 2022 at the hands of Iran’s morality police - and the ensuing draconian crackdown on protesters.

More recently, the bloc established a new regime to prohibit the EU export of critical components used to manufacture deadly drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), that are then sold on to Moscow to bolster its war efforts in Ukraine. 

Those UAVs were also used Saturday when Tehran launched some 300 drones and cruise and ballistic missiles towards Israel, in its first ever direct attack on Israeli territory.

The attack was a response to Israel’s recent airstrike on an Iranian diplomatic building in the Syrian capital of Damascus, which saw seven members of its Revolutionary Guard, including two top commanders, killed. That attack was also condemned by Borrell on behalf of the EU.

Borrell said that the bloc's sanctions against Iranian drones could be expanded in "two directions." First, missiles would be included as well as drones, despite no current evidence to suggest Tehran is supplying Moscow with war projectiles used in its unprovoked war against Ukraine.

Iran's proxies in neighbouring countries, such as the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Syrian regime, could also be slapped under an expanded regime.

Calls for further restrictive measures

Earlier on Tuesday, Israel’s foreign minister wrote to 32 of his Western counterparts - including all 27 EU foreign ministers - urging them to impose broader sanctions on Iran's missile programme and list the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organisation.

“Iran must be stopped now - before it is too late,” Minister Israel Katz said on social media platform X, describing his initiative as a “diplomatic offensive against Iran.”

Borrell said that while his services could consider listing the Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organisation, the EU requires a "decision by a national authority related with a case of terrorist activities" to be able to do so.

"I will ask the legal services of the (European) External Action Service to relook at this and see if there is any case in which we could base this proposition, but for the time being, we don't have it," he explained.

Another potential tool to exert pressure on Iran could be to reimpose sanctions levied against Iran for its nuclear activities.

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The 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which saw Iran dismantle much of its nuclear programme in return for a Western waiver on billions of euros’ worth of sanctions, includes a US-brokered clause to ‘snap back’ sanctions if Iran is suspected of violating the deal.

The US attempted to snap back sanctions in 2020, but was held back by other signatories - including France and Germany - who claimed the move was not possible given that the Trump administration had withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018.

But, speaking to Euronews on Monday, Sven Biscop of the Egmont Institute suggested any tightening of EU sanctions would do little to pressure Iran: "Iran is now almost totally isolated from the West. So there is little that another round of EU sanctions against Iran could bring," Biscop said.

EU leaders are due to convene in Brussels for a two-day summit on Wednesday, where the fragile situation in the Middle East is due to dominate discussions.

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