Western Europe and the Iranian Revolution of 1979: Political, Strategic, and Energy Aspects

In 1978, on the eve of the revolution, the European Community represented the first commercial partner of Iran, which ranked sixth among the EC’s trading partners. Politically Iran tried to use its wealth to promote goals complementary to those of the Atlantic partners: by the end of the decade the country was regarded as a useful ally in the area not only by Washington, but also by Western European countries. Given the extent of the collaboration between Tehran and its European partners, it is easy to understand the alarm when, in January 1979, after more than fifty years under Pahlavi rule the Shah was toppled by a mob of angry protesters, leaving his Western allies in Europe as much as in Washington, in dismay. In the aftermath of the revolution, though eager to protect their financial investments in Iran, most of the European countries acquiesced in the American position to demonstrate transatlantic solidarity. Nonetheless this formal cohesion among the Western countries showed signs of divergences, above all with regard to the commercial restrictions to be imposed to the new regime. Drawing on the European Community’s official papers, the sources located in British and French archives, oral histories and interviews, the paper will try to explore the main fields in which these divergences emerged and their relevance, both on the U.S.-Europe front as on the intra-European one. In doing so the study will also assess the level of cohesiveness of the European Community as international actor and its ability to produce a coordinated response in reaction to the crisis. In some passages the analysis of EC–Iran relations is combined with a brief examination of the broader geostrategic context, first and foremost the transatlantic alliance. Between the late 1970s and the early 1980s many Western European countries, including the key EC members, showed increasing reluctance to lend unambiguous support to American policy in the Third World. In this framework the Iranian crisis can shed some light on the changes underway in the European approach to the global arena and in new patterns in the transatlantic alliance, especially on Third World issues. The paper will take into examination both the perspectives of some single Western European countries and that of the European Economic Community in light of the relevant role it played, especially after the hostage crisis, in expressing European interests, policies, and priorities vis-à-vis both Washington and Tehran.