The EU is preparing to expand its sanctions on Iran as a political warning after the attack on Israel

Following in the footsteps of the US and UK, European foreign and defense ministers are expected to greenlight new restrictions against Tehran, but without targeting the Revolutionary Guard

UE sanctions on Iran
The remains of a ballistic missile found on the Dead Sea coast after Iran's attack on Israel on April 13.Alon Ben Mordechai (REUTERS)

The tense status quo that reigns after the latest attacks and reprisals between Israel and Iran has brought momentary relief to an international community terrified by the escalation of the conflict in the Middle East. But the situation is too precarious and volatile to relax. Hence, the European Union is preparing to give its approval on Monday to new sanctions against Iran after the United States and the United Kingdom announced new restrictions on Thursday.

Community and diplomatic sources are practically certain that the meeting of foreign and defense ministers this Monday in Luxembourg will approve the extension of the sanctions imposed on Iran since 2022— after the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine— for the production and transfer of drones to Moscow, to also include missiles. It is a measure long demanded by several member states, which accuse the EU Commission of having “dragged its feet” for too long on this matter, an accusation that Brussels rejects.

At the same time, a political agreement should be reached to extend these restrictions to other parts of the Middle East in order to sanction and thus punish Iran for sending drones or missiles to its proxies in the region, such as the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the pro-Iran militias in Iraq.

To do this, they have the explicit backing of the heads of state and government of the 27 members of the EU, who at their extraordinary summit in Brussels last week agreed that the EU must “take more restrictive measures against Iran”, especially in matters of unmanned [drones] and missiles, with the explicit purpose of contributing to de-escalation and security in the region.

Although the issue has been on the table for some time, no one expects senior European officials to reach an agreement for now on a third proposed sanction: including the Revolutionary Guard on the EU list of terrorist organizations. It is a step that has already been taken by Washington and demanded by some European States. But there are doubts within the EU members whether this step can be legally taken (which first requires a national decision in this regard, that is, for a court in one of the EU countries to declare it a terrorist organization) and, most importantly, whether it would be a convenient thing to do, as it would further close the already narrow channels of communication with Tehran.

A senior EU source indicated on the eve of the meeting in Luxembourg that, in any case, such a move would be a “symbolic gesture without practical consequences,” because the Revolutionary Guard is already included in all other EU sanctions against Iran. “We already have them on the list for weapons of mass destruction and human rights violations. So the main consequences have already been underway for years.”

In any case, extending sanctions now would be considered a strong “political message” following the unprecedented missile and drone attack against Israel in the early hours of April 13. The international community, which has called for restraint from all parties, hopes to make it clear to the Tehran regime that it will not allow it to set the region on fire. This is a message that the U.S. and the U.K. already sent on Thursday, when they announced new sanctions against several military organizations, individuals and entities involved in Iran’s drone and ballistic missile industry.

The threat of European sanctions is not new for Tehran. The Iranian regime has been under different European restrictions for years, due to the violations and abuses of human rights committed within its borders — and reinforced since the repression of protests after the death of young Mahsa Amini in police custody in September 2022 — as well as for its military support for Russia and its nuclear proliferation activities.

Following the sanctions imposed in connection with the Russian war in Ukraine, Iran is the country with the most people and entities on which the EU has imposed restrictions: a total of 473 financial sanctions and 283 travel bans to European territory are currently in force, affecting 284 individuals and 189 entities.

The US, tough on Iran since 1979

As for the United States, its battery of sanctions against Iran is the most extensive and punitive that it maintains against any country. Thousands of individuals and entities, Iranian and foreign, have been affected by them since Washington began penalizing the Islamic Republic in 1979 to force it to release the individuals captured in its Embassy in Tehran during the hostage crisis. Since then, and following the ups and downs of an almost constantly hostile relationship, punishments have been extended against nuclear activities, violations of human rights and the manufacture and sale of weapons contrary to what is contemplated in international law. And, now, against Iran’s bellicosity towards Israel.

The United States has blocked all Iranian assets on its soil and prevents almost all types of trade between with Iran except for food, agricultural materials, medicine, medical equipment and other humanitarian products. It also prohibits foreign assistance and arms sales.

Its sanctions most particularly target the Iranian energy sector, one of the great pillars of the national economy, and foreign companies that invest or buy in that industry. But they also punish the financial sector and the central bank, as well as various sectors of its economy, including shipping, construction, mining, textiles, automotive and manufacturing. They also penalize Iranian government officials and the arms trade.

Washington believes that the pressure exerted by the sanctions led Iran to agree to sign the 2015 multilateral treaty known as JCPOA, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, by which Tehran agreed to limit its nuclear program and subject it to international inspections in exchange for the withdrawal of Western sanctions related to its nuclear activities.

The pact was shattered with the arrival of Donald Trump to the White House; in 2018 the U.S. president reimposed all the revoked sanctions and added new ones, in what his administration described as a “maximum pressure policy” to force Tehran to negotiate a much stricter agreement. The Iranian regime never sat at that table.

Unde Joe Biden, Washington has imposed new sanctions against hundreds of Iranian entities for their role in illicit arms sales, violence against protesters and other human rights violations, the transfer of military hardware to Russia for use in the war in Ukraine, and the illegal detention of American nationals. To theses are now added those imposed this week against the drone industry, the automotive sector and individuals as punishment for the attack against Israel.

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