With the conflict in Ukraine still raging, the Russian government has decided to hit Europeans where it hurts: by targeting their supplies of natural gas. This week, the Kremlin announced that it would be shutting off the critical Nord Stream 1 pipeline until the “collective West” lifts sanctions against Russia.
Europe is in for a very hard winter. The move came with energy prices in Europe already surging and consumers and businesses feeling the sting. Now, the continent faces the almost certain prospect of energy rationing and blackouts during the coldest months of the year. Politicians are warning of potential major social unrest and political instability in the European Union — a dream scenario for Russian President Vladimir Putin, as his government seeks to punish Ukraine’s allies for their role in the war.
With European countries casting about desperately for a way to replace Russian energy supplies, there is notionally one major producer of natural gas whose reserves could help ease global markets if they were tapped: the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Iran has the second largest natural gas reserves on the planet, though these supplies are currently cut off from the market by U.S. sanctions. Amid ongoing talks in Vienna to lift sanctions in exchange for limits on Iran’s nuclear program — which, if successful, would theoretically make Iranian oil and gas accessible to the world once more to the West — Iranian politicians are increasingly referencing their ability to alleviate Europe’s crisis.
“Given Europe’s energy supply problems triggered by the Ukraine crisis, Iran could provide Europe’s energy needs if sanctions against it are lifted,” Iran’s foreign ministry’s spokesperson Nasser Kanani said recently in an interview. Mohammed Marandi, an adviser to Iran’s negotiating team in Vienna, made similar comments to Al Jazeera last week, linking Europe’s energy crisis to the sanctions on Iran, adding, “Iran wants a deal, but the Europeans need a deal.” (Marandi has also regularly made light of the growing inequalities between Europe and the United States, in terms of energy access as a result of the crisis, on social media.)
These claims that Iran could rapidly step in to solve Europe’s woes are somewhat overstated. Although Iran does have massive natural gas reserves, the necessary pipeline and shipping infrastructure simply does not exist at present for exporting gas to Europe. To put it simply, there is no flip of a switch that can rapidly turn on supplies to Europe and help them cope with the winter ahead.
There is, however, a grain of truth to Iranian claims: The United States is partly responsible for Europe’s predicament.
The relationship between Europe’s gas crisis and the failures of American foreign policy are directly tied to the negotiations now taking place in Vienna — negotiations that are themselves merely an attempt to salvage a nuclear deal that was already in place seven years ago. That was the deal that could have helped ease Europe’s current pain.
Although Iran today lacks the pipeline infrastructure to connect its natural gas supplies to European markets, there was an opportunity to develop those means following the signing of the 2015 nuclear deal. European energy experts were already talking up the benefits of opening a new import route from Iran — one that would help Europe diversify its supplies in the long term and wean it off Russian dependency.
The political stability needed for such developments never materialized — and this is where the U.S. comes in. The original nuclear deal was reached in July 2015 and full implementation was confirmed in January 2016. Five months later, Donald Trump would announce his run for president, campaigning on tearing up the nuclear deal. By the time he was elected in November 2016, it was clear to the Iranians that the nuclear deal was hardly worth the paper it was written on.
Watching these events, the world had quickly realized that Iranian energy supplies wouldn’t be reliable, giving other countries little incentive to help Iran build up its natural gas infrastructure. By the time Trump exited the deal entirely in 2018, plugging into Iranian natural gas supplies would be too risky for European investors.
There was a clear incentive to spread the risk around by adding Iran to its energy mix, but thanks to a volatile president and national security hawks in D.C. utterly indifferent to European concerns, that opportunity to chart a different path was lost.
In that sense, America’s reckless actions in the Middle East over the years have worked to tie Europe’s hands and prevent it from independently developing an energy policy that would allow it to resist the bullying from Russia that it is experiencing today. If the deal had been allowed to flourish, without the clear signal less than a year in that it would imminently collapse, it’s possible the necessary Iranian natural gas infrastructure would already be in place.
And it’s not just natural gas: Iranian oil could also ease energy costs around the world — oil that is also similarly constrained by U.S. sanctions. At a G7 meeting this summer, a French official relayed concerns about getting Iranian as well as Venezuelan oil back on the global markets, referring to sanctions as a “knot that needs to be untied.” With the global economy already teetering on the brink thanks to the war, energy experts are also saying that the return of Iranian oil reserves — for which much infrastructure already exists — could help fill a “Russia-sized hole” in global markets.
Whether any of these knots are going to be untied or holes refilled remains an open question. Recent reports from the nuclear talks in Vienna have not been encouraging. Even if negotiations do reach a successful conclusion, they will do little to help in the short term. Yet with some European leaders looking ahead to warn that there may be a decade of “difficult winters” ahead, it’s worth reflecting on the importance of planning seriously for the future.
The potentially transformative vision of the original Iran nuclear deal was killed by the Trump administration. Now it is up to President Joe Biden to try and see if something worthwhile can replace it — for the sake of avoiding war between America and Iran, and also ensuring Europe can have reliable access to the natural gas needed to stick out the hard years ahead.