International affairs expert
Luigi Di Maio, the European Union’s special representative for the Persian Gulf region, met separately with Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and his deputy for political affairs Ali Baqeri-Kani in Tehran on Monday. During his meeting with Baqeri-Kani, the Iranian deputy minister expressed said Tehran would welcome any European initiative aimed at fostering cooperation. In response, Di Maio stressed the importance of maintaining an ongoing dialogue and engagement with the Islamic Republic.
The exact purpose of Di Maio’s visit to Tehran remains somewhat unclear, as it is not considered a high-level diplomatic mission. Therefore, a more thorough assessment of the trip will have to wait until there are more about his subsequent statements and positions following the meetings in Tehran. Nonetheless, there have been several bones of contention between Iran and Europe in recent months that soured their relationship.
One such issue is Europe’s rigid stance on Iran’s domestic protests that hit some Iranian cities last year. Europeans had hoped that these protests might compel Tehran to alter its approach to regional affairs, the Ukraine conflict, human rights, and nuclear negotiations. However, they gradually realized that Iran had not made significant changes to its entrenched positions.
Another source of tension between Iran and Europe is the alleged military cooperation between Iran and Russia against Ukraine. Moreover, the level of Iran’s cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and its participation in nuclear negotiations have also been points of contention between the two sides. It is noteworthy that Di Maio’s visit coincided with the IAEA’s quarterly Board of Governors meeting.
In the past, Europe had played the role of a mediator between Iran and the United States. However, due to their increasingly tough stances against Iran, Tehran decided to sideline Europe and instead entrusted this role to Oman and Qatar. This shift ultimately led to an agreement between Iran and the United States concerning the exchange of prisoners and the release of Iran’s frozen assets in South Korea.
It appears that these critical issues were on the agenda for the European special envoy’s talks with Iranian authorities. Accordingly, interpreting the visit of a European delegation to Tehran should not automatically imply a complete shift in Europe’s stance toward Iran or an attempt to correct past mistakes.
Nevertheless, during his meeting with Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Di Maio emphasized Europe’s desire to keep the lines of communication and interaction with Tehran open. This stance is undoubtedly constructive and suggests that Europe is not interested in severing ties with Iran completely.
In the past, Iran and Europe had engaged in a project termed “critical dialogue.” During the 1990s, the EU initiated this dialogue with Tehran while maintaining a critical perspective. Iran had welcomed this proposal at the time. Now, in light of the recent strains in Iran-EU relations, the European special envoy’s emphasis on maintaining open channels of dialogue and interaction indicates the EU’s intention to settle disputes with Iran through peaceful means, rather than escalating tensions.
This approach is the right path to take, and if pursued, Iran and the EU can address their differences and steadily identify areas for cooperation. However, whether the special envoy’s positions will be put into practice by the EU remains to be seen.