Hossein Mofidi Ahmadi, Ph.D. in International Relations & Europe Analyst
Iran's political and strategic circles have been monitoring the consequences of Britain’s exit from the European Union, known as Brexit, with special sensitivity. However, it is clear that the shadow of uncertainty about consequences of Brexit has been hovering over Iranian decision-makers as has been the case with their counterparts in other countries and actors within the international system. Of course, there is consensus in Iran that even outside the European Union (EU) Britain will continue to play the role of an important actor in steering the Middle Eastern policies of the West and Europe. However, Iran maintains that the consequences of Brexit would not be one-dimensional and should be assessed from the viewpoint of the opportunities and challenges they offer Iran.
From the viewpoint of Iranian experts, the most important advantage of Brexit for Iran is probable weakening of Britain’s role within the Union as the country which has been most in line with the United States’ security strategies against the Islamic Republic. Furthermore, a Britain outside the EU will be probably a weaker strategic ally for the United States. In the meantime, in view of its possible effect on undermining the European Union, Brexit would possibly scuttle the axis and concept of the “West” as a result of which Russia and China would boost their influence in the Middle East and Iran is possible to further strengthen its “look to the East” policy. From the viewpoint of Iran, bolstering the eastern axis will give Iran an upper hand in developments that may take place following the implementation of Iran's nuclear deal with the P5+1 group of countries, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), especially with regard to developments in Syria. Of course, the negative side of this issue would be enforcement of a balanced foreign policy with such countries as Russia and China.
Another advantage of Brexit for Iran is that the United States’ Trojan horse will leave the EU. In the meantime, reduced power and effectiveness of possible future sanctions policies adopted by the European Union and Britain is also important to Iran, because London played a major role in forging consensus for the enforcement of these sanctions, while the European Union also played an important part in enforcement of sanctions adopted by Britain and the United States against Tehran. Another advantage is that due to the economic instability in Britain, which is sure to follow Brexit, London’s foreign policy will become more inclined toward the country’s economic priorities as a result of which less significance will be attached to the policy of mounting pressure on Middle Eastern countries in order to change behavior or ruling regimes of these countries.
Despite the importance of the above points, challenges posed by Brexit to Iran will not be limited. Iran has always looked upon the European Union as a leverage by which it could make the most of the advantages of the implementation of the JCPOA, including removal of sanctions. This approach will become more important if a person like the presumptive Republican candidate, Donald Trump, is elected as the US president. Due to its possible short-term effect on weakening the international standing of Europe, Brexit may cause challenges to the realization of the JCPOA.
Another important point is that from Iran's viewpoint, the European Union has played an important role in drawing the attention of most member states (especially Britain) to taking advantage of soft power tools in its security and foreign policies, and this issue has, to some extent, made Britain’s trans-Atlantic views more balanced. Britain’s exit from the European Union and dominance of this idea that the security of Britain depends more on its special relationship with the United States and its actions within such a military institution as the NATO than the European Union would probably have concerning security consequences for Iran.
Another issue, which can worry Iran, is that due to short-term negative impact of Brexit on the British economy, the country will feel a more serious need to boost its trade interactions and arms deals with the Arab states of the Persian Gulf region. This issue can potentially lead to increased regional clout of Britain in the Persian Gulf, intensification of the arms race in the region, and weakening of Iran's position in the regional balance. At the same time, Brexit will help Britain get rid of the European Union’s requirements for the regulation of arms trade with third countries.
Negative economic consequences of Brexit for Iran can be viewed from two standpoints. Firstly, Brexit will have a negative effect on the global flow of foreign direct investment (FDI) and this issue would not be beneficial to Iran, which needs such investment. On the other hand, due to high risk of investment in Iran as a result of the United States’ secondary sanctions, Iran will not be probably among investment priorities for Britain.
Another negative consequence of Brexit for Iran is the possible effect of Brexit on rising to power of new leaders in Britain as well as other European countries, whose definition of the European identity would be much more exclusive. This definition would cause Muslims and the entire Islamic world to be looked upon as enemies of Europe as a result of which Iran’s political and economic interactions with European countries would face a serious challenge.