The case of Iran teaches the EU a lesson in Global Leadership

After a decade of nuclear talks, a deal between Iran and the International Community may finally be in sight. However, what if the compromise found at the negotiation table falls through domestically on either the Iranian or the American side? In the end, the EU will have to pick up the tab and finally punch its weight.

It may be just a coincidence: Quite exactly ten years before the current round of talks in Geneva, the then foreign ministers of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom (the EU-3) had a first breakthrough in their talks with the Iranian government. With the ‚Tehran Declaration’ of 21 October 2003, Iran agreed to sign and implement the Additional Protocol of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and to voluntary suspend all uranium enrichment activities. In return, the three European powers recognised the country’s right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy in accordance with the NPT and promised cooperation on nuclear energy once ‚satisfactory assurances’ about Iran's nuclear programme had alleviated international concerns. At least two individuals will certainly take note of the ‚anniversary‘: Hassan Rouhani, then the leader of the Iranian team and now the country’s freshly elected president, and Mohammed Zarif, the country’s foreign minister who then was its ambassador to the UN.

The EU-3 has morphed into the P5+1 with China, Russia, and the United States now also at the table, notably represented by the EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton. Their discussions with the new Iranian leaderhip in Geneva on 15 and 16 October were „substantive and forward-looking“ according to a joint declaration – the latter being in itself a first. During the meeting, the contours of a possible agreement emerged: Iran would accept strict limits on its enrichment activites and implement the Additional Protocol. In return, the P5+1 would gradually lift sanctions – both UN agreed and their own – as well as recognise in principle Iran’s right to enrichment. If this sounds somewhat familiar, small wonder: The essence of the deal – intrusive inspections in exchange for international recognition – have been out there for ten years. However, it has taken a decade of nuclear advances checked by increased sanctions so that all parties concerned understood the seriousness of the other and seem to have become ready for a compromise.

Securing a deal at the negotiation table is only half the battle, however. It is entirely possible that whatever agreement comes about eventually unravels domestically in one of the countries concerned. This could be Iran, of course, but it could just as well be the United States on the part of the P5+1 (the other five parties have either less critical domestic constituencies or the power to disregard them).

Given Iran’s long-standing emnity with the US, so much so that anti-Americanism has become a state ideology, it is doubtful whether the ruling elites – from hardline lawmakers to conservative clerics to the Revolutionary Guards – would accept a normalisation of relations with the ‚Great Satan’. The discussion in Tehran about whether to change views on the US has set in right after the historic telephone call between Presidents Obama and Rouhani at the end of September. The new mood – if there is one – will be tested already on November 4, the anniversary of the 1979 seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran. The usually chanted slogan „Death to America“ would certainly ring stridently in the ears of the nuclear negotiators scheduled to meet the next day in Geneva for another round of talks. So, moderation on this side would not only signal the good will of the new Iranian government but also provide a measure of how much they can impose a new course domestically.

On the other end, the tricky question is whether the United States is ready to settle for a compromise. Here too, the debate has centered for more than three decades on Iran as an enemy (though one among many). Following the rhetoric of Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu, a number of hardliners have already started to bang the drum of war again, calling sanctions a failure and the Iranian government's opening a ‚'smokescreen‘. At the same time, Congress has been preparing new sanctions bills which has given the administration a hard time in asking for them to be freezed for the duration of the negotiations.

While it is obvious that the U.S. government will work closely with Congress throughout the negotiations, this does by no means guarantee that America will be in the position to swiftly live up to its side of the deal once it is made. This was obvious even before the recent government shutdown had exposed the irrational forces of American politics. And just like this stalemate had helped stop the sanctions bill from being debated, the next deadlock in this saga expected for early 2014 could delay any positive measure to be passed by Congress should negotiations come to a close within the envisaged short period of around three months.

In the end, a (temporary) defeat of any deal on either the American or Iranian side would put the European Union in the position to again lead on this dossier. It has done so, reluctantly, ever since 2002 when the US was not willing to even talk to Iran. In this scenario, it would have to save the achievements of a decade of diplomacy by stepping in boldly: Either to make up for measures the US cannot take, or to support a well-meaning Iranian government in the face of domestic resistance.

The first case of an American failure to deliver is the negotiators’ nightmare, even though it may be easier for the EU to handle. It is a nightmare because it may ‚prove’ to a sceptical Iranian audience the illwill of ‚the West’ – assuming that the US never really intended to reciprocate on an Iranian opening. This would likely be the end of any negotiations for a long while. To prevent this deterioration and to provide Iran with some rewards for its concessions, the EU could swiftly remove those sanctions of European origin that really bite, including the oil embargo and the ban on financial transactions. In addition, the EU could start a process of political recognition of the Islamic Republic, including by opening an EU delegation in Tehran (the UK has already embarked on talks to re-establish formal diplomatic relations). To what extent it could also lean on its American friends to overcome any domestic blockade, is much more uncertain.

The second case of an Iranian inability to live up to its side of the agreement is also fraught with uncertainties. First of all, it would be hard to assess – let alone ‚prove’ – that the government was indeed negotiating with good faith but then came under too much pressure internally. While a Western audience would most likely unterstand Congress’ intransigence as parochial but authentic and not part of a double-faced strategy, an inherent wariness of ‚the mullah regime’ would make any further offers a hard sell – even if they were intended to strengthen an honestly negotiating government. Again, some political symbolism might be helpful like strengthening cultural exchanges or, again, setting up an EU delegation to Iran in order to keep communication channels open and better understand the other side. The EU could also tie rewards for Iran to cooperation in fields other than the nuclear issue, i.e. to resolving the Syrian crisis or improving the human rights situation at home.

The crucial thing is that policymakers both in Europe and the US would have to be ready to adapt a different mindset: From one bent on increasing sanctions in order to get Iran to the negotiating table to one focused on carefully targeting sanctions relief so that the government has some progress to show to its domestic constituencies in order to be able to implement a potential agreement.

Either way, as important as getting a deal is for all parties involved, will be the question of whether and how an agreement can be implemented. The EU has been driving and formally leading this process for much of the past ten years – by actually owning it throughout its tricky implementation, it can show that it can ultimately lead at the global level.

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