by Eldar Mamedov
With only a little over a month to go before the deadline for a comprehensive deal on Iran’s nuclear program, a group of European, Gulf and Iranian academics and policymakers gathered Oct. 6-7 in Tehran to discuss the future of EU-Iran relations. The workshop, which was formally addressed by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, was organized by a trio of think tanks: the European Council on Foreign Relations, the European-Iranian Research Group, and the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s Institute for Political and International Studies.
The nuclear issue loomed large during the discussions that were held under Chatham House rules. While both sides acknowledged that a comprehensive agreement would unlock the full potential of EU-Iran relations, including improved economic ties and mutually beneficial cooperation in the fight against extremist groups like the Islamic State, their assessments of the EU’s role in the talks varied.
According to the Iranian perspective, Europeans have more at stake in the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program than the Americans due to their historical and geographical proximity to Iran, their need to meet security challenges in the Middle East, and their desire to uphold a peaceful, rule-bound international order. Hence the Iranian hope that Europe could soften the American position on critical issues in the talks such as the future scope of the Iranian nuclear program and the removal of sanctions.
In particular, Tehran seeks an understanding with Europe on the “breakout” issue, which it understands as the American concern over Iran’s capacity to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon in a relatively short period of time. Yet the Iranian side claimed during the workshop that Iran’s conventional military superiority does not require nuclear weapons to boost its security. To the contrary, even the perception from neighboring countries that Iran might acquire nuclear weapons would trigger a regional nuclear arms race that would be to the detriment of everyone, including Iran. This would, in turn, weaken Iran’s strategic positioning. The Iranian side added that if the real issue is Western distrust of Iranian intentions, then this sticking point could be resolved through non-proliferation mechanisms, such as inspections.
The European participants agreed that an “imperfect deal”—letting some extra thousand centrifuges spin while subjecting Iran to an intrusive inspections regime—would be an acceptable price to pay for an agreement resulting in a new era of positive relations with Iran and alleviating some of the miseries afflicting the Middle East. But they were very skeptical about the political will in the continent to put pressure on Washington in what would inevitably be seen as a favor to Iran. This is because Iran’s “breakout” capacity is also a concern in Europe, and because Europeans see intrinsic value in strengthening the trans-atlantic bond, especially at a time when Europe needs American reassurances against a resurgent Russia. However, as one European participant said, Europe is a “reluctant US ally on Iran sanctions.” If talks fail due to perceived American—rather than Iranian—intransigence, there will be “growing unease” in Europe over sanctions, especially since many European companies are eager to exploit the potential of the Iranian market. Indeed, if the US Congress accordingly imposed new sanctions, the EU would be unlikely to follow suit, except in the event of major new breaches by Iran of its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obligations.
The failure to reach a deal is something that the Iranians clearly want to avoid, but not at any price. If the government sees the terms of the agreement as humiliating and politically unsellable to the Iranian public, it would prefer no deal at all. The Iranians are preparing for this contingency, including a renewed sanctions regime. The nuclear program would in the case of failed talks proceed anyway; the Iranians have pointed out that it is not possible to destroy their knowledge and technical capabilities. In this scenario, Iran would likely build new centrifuges to enrich uranium and sell oil at discounted prices to Russia, China, and Japan while waiting for the sanctions regime to go bust.
The message was thus very clear: this Iranian government is ready for a deal, but not desperate. The implication is that the Rouhani government is making the best possible offer Iran can make today, and if that offer is not accepted, a conservative backlash would ensue. Indeed, the hard-line opponents of Hassan Rouhani’s administration would feel their deep distrust of the West vindicated and the efforts of the president’s reformist-centrist coalition to normalize Iran’s relations with the West and set the country on a liberalizing trajectory would be undermined.
The European participants were of the opinion that even if a comprehensive agreement is not finalized, there might be a more limited deal. In any case, a return to the status quo that endured before the Joint Plan of Action was reached in Geneva last year is unlikely. All sides have invested too much political capital and energy into achieving a deal to stand by and watch as the entire diplomatic process is derailed. Striking a deal with Iran would also be a badly needed foreign policy success for the American president. Besides, the ongoing failure of the US-led coalition to significantly harm the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq might provide an additional incentive to reach out to Iran.
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