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The European Subaltern and the European Union's Iran Diplomacy

Moritz Pieper

This article will analyze the foreign policy of the European Union in the E3+3 Iran nuclear talks. It will shed light on the mediatory potential especially of the European External Action Service (EEAS) and the EU's role in sanctions policies. In the absence of US-Iranian bilateral relations, it fell to the 'EU3' (France, Great Britain and Germany) to lead negotiations with Iran when the latter's nuclear programme was uncovered in 2002. After the failure of diplomacy and the referral of the Iran case to the UN Security Council, EU unilateral sanctions began to 'over-comply' with UN-mandated international sanctions on Iran, and affected Iranian entities and Iran's economy much more than US unilateral sanctions (such as the 2012 EU oil embargo or financial sanctions such as the cut-off from the Belgian-based SWIFT system). Drawing on neo-Gramscian scholarship, it will be argued that the EU's Iran policy was that of a hegemonic subaltern. Against the backdrop of the centrality of the US for any closure of the Iranian nuclear file, the EU's sanctions policy epitomized the loss of positions guided by autonomous decision-making. Constrained by the imperatives of hegemonic coercion in the form of US financial Iran sanctions against third country entities and hegemonic consent of a Western US-led 'historic bloc', it will be shown how Europe was relegated to a subaltern below its mediatory potential. Based on a range of semi-structured elite interviews with European nuclear negotiation teams and complemented by qualitative document analysis as well as the scholarly literature, it will be argued that the EU needs to emancipate itself from a hegemonic narrative to prepare for a post-sanctions scenario with Iran in the wake of a Comprehensive Joint Plan of Action.

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