As the world witnesses the Syrian and Iranian regimes commit countless human rights abuses and, in Iran’s case, move ever closer to perfecting its nuclear capabilities, there’s a common belief that, short of military intervention, there’s nothing that can be done. As it turns out, however, that’s far from the truth—but the majority of the initiative must come from Europe. The European Union has thus far failed to confront the Iranian and Syrian regimes to the full extent of its ability. Though they are loath to admit it, European countries are Iran’s and Syria’s best customers, providing the EU with significant leverage. Meaningful energy sanctions could deliver a one-two punch to Iran’s nuclear weapons program and Syrian president Bashar Al Assad’s ongoing campaign to snuff out his country’s democratic reformers.
To its credit, the EU imposed oil sanctions on the Syrian regime in September, barring its 27 members from purchasing Syrian oil. Given that the EU consumes 95 percent of Syria’s oil exports, the embargo could potentially cripple the country’s economy. But there are loopholes in the EU sanctions that allow European energy firms to maintain their investments in Syrian oil fields, continue producing oil from them, and continue delivering it to their EU customers until mid-November. As a result, major European energy companies continue to operate there, including the United Kingdom’s Gulfsands Petreoleum and Petrofac, Hungary’s MOL, France’s Total, Croatia’s INA Industrija Nafte d.d, and the joint Dutch-British enterprise Royal Dutch Shell.
And when it comes to Iran, the EU remains the country’s most important global trade partner. Just last year, the total trade volume between the EU and Iran exceeded €25 billion. Almost 90 percent of Europe’s imports from Iran are energy, making the Islamic Republic the sixth-largest energy provider to the EU. While U.S. companies are prohibited from purchasing Iranian gas, and the Obama administration pushed the EU to ban the export of energy technology to Iran, Europe continues to buy Iranian gas. In addition, Iran joined Syria and Iraq in July as a signatory to a $10 billion natural gas pipeline agreement, under which Syria would eventually buy between 20 and 25 million cubic meters of Iranian gas per day, and run an extended transportation operation—the so-called “Islamic Gas Pipeline”—to Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea, through which it would pipe gas into Europe.
If the EU decided to reduce its Iranian gas imports, the measures could jolt Iran’s fragile energy market, prompting secondary pain to the cash-strapped Syrian regime that Iran is aiding. Iran’s highly vulnerable energy sector has long been considered its Achilles’ heel. The country finances its nuclear program with invaluable revenue from its energy sector. A staggering 70 percent of Iran’s governmental revenues derive from its petroleum business, which makes up 80 percent of the country’s export activities.
Instead, however, the EU—and especially Germany, which is Iran’s number one EU trading partner—continues to have a soft spot for the Iranian regime when it comes to trade. Despite the new EU sanctions, German exports to the Islamic Republic increased by 2.6 percent between 2009 and 2010, reaching a total of €3.8 billion. German exports then dropped from approximately €2.22 billion for the first half of 2010 to roughly €1.76 billion for the first half of 2011, but German imports of Iranian goods increased from to €382 million to €453 million during the same time period. The Federal Republic’s consumption of Iranian gas and oil rose during the first six months of 2011 to €280 million, up from €197 million in the first half of 2010.
Moreover, Germany continues to lend political legitimacy to Iran’s leaders. Last October, a cross-section of German parliamentarians ranging from the Greens to Merkel’s Christian Democrats visited Iran and met with Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, the head of Iran’s parliamentary cultural committee, who supported Iran’s fatwa against British novelist Salman Rushdie. The delegation also chatted with then-Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki, who delivered a key speech at Tehran’s 2006 Holocaust denial conference, and Mohammad Javad Larijani, who heads the Iranian human rights council and famously called for Israel’s destruction at a German foreign ministry-sponsored event in Berlin in 2008. During their almost one-week stay in Iran, the German deputies uttered not a word of criticism of Iran’s nuclear and human rights violations.
The United States has deployed every measure in its power short of military force to persuade the Iranian and Syrian regimes to change their policies. For all its humanitarian sentiment, however, Europe has done nothing of the kind. And until it truly gets serious with its trading partners, don’t expect their behavior to change.
Benjamin Weinthal is a Berlin-based investigative journalist and fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.