by Eldar Mamedov
Although the debate in the US on the Iran nuclear deal is heated and ongoing, the EU is quietly forging ahead with its own post-deal Iran strategy. Unlike in the US, there is no need for parliamentary review in the European Parliament or in the national parliaments of the EU member states to make the deal effective. On the same day that the UN Security Council unanimously endorsed the deal, so did the Council of the EU—a body representing the national governments of the EU states.
For the EU the successful conclusion of the agreement represents a rare foreign policy triumph and a vindication of its approach to the international crisis resolution: effective multilateralism and diplomacy deliver better results than unilateralism and war. But the EU cannot rest on its laurels. Once negotiated, the deal becomes the responsibility of the EU. It falls on the EU to make it work. Even without a vote of disapproval in Congress, the US won’t take the initiative on rapprochement with Iran. A deep-seated skepticism persists among US politicians regarding Iranian behavior in the region and its human rights record, and they continue to be reluctant to lift sanctions.
Illustrative of this mindset was the leading Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s speech on Iran at the Brookings Institution on September 9. Clinton endorsed the deal, but she also stated that she “won’t hesitate to use military force in case Iran cheats” and vowed to “oppose Iran across the board” in the region. Although this may be discounted as an effect of the US entering the campaign season, it shows the parameters of the mainstream debate in the US over Iran. Add to this the fact that all Republican candidates oppose the deal.
This may be good news for the EU. Since the EU must take the driver’s seat, US ambivalence will give it more leverage vis-a-vis Iran when it comes to trade and economic relations and human rights. The EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy Federica Mogherini will chair the Joint Commission overseeing the implementation of the deal. And, as Mogherini herself suggested in her speech to the European Parliament on the Iran deal on September 9, the EU understands the need to build the mutual trust essential for the implementation of the deal and broader rapprochement.
Mogherini also announced the creation of an inter-institutional Iran taskforce that will pull together the different services of the European Commission and the External Action Service to ensure a coordinated EU Iran policy. She identified a number of areas of possible cooperation with Iran: trade, environment, fighting drugs and terrorism, aviation safety, human rights dialogue. If the deal is to endure beyond the 10 years of the restrictions imposed on its nuclear program, Mogherini is suggesting, Iran must be embedded in a broader framework of relations creating interdependencies and incentivizing all sides to stick to the agreement, while raising the costs of violating it.
This is a much more promising approach than Hillary´s tough talk. Based on past experiences, Iran is more likely to respond to incentives than coercion. That’s why it is pointless to guess whether Iran will or will not cheat on the deal. Rather, conditions should be created to make Iran want to respect the deal. If Clinton assumes that Iran will cheat, then her threats of using a military option could make this a self-fulfilling prophecy. Rather than cow Iran into compliance, such talk is only likely to reinforce the positions of those in Iran who are deeply skeptical or hostile about American intentions. Yet again, American politicians seem to forget that domestic politics have impact not only in the US but also in Iran, where crucial parliamentary elections will take place in early 2016. These elections will determine, to a large extent, the strength of the reformist-centrist, pro-deal coalition of President Hassan Rouhani.
An Ambitious Agenda
The nascent post-deal EU strategy envisages not only reinvigorated bilateral ties with Iran but also a regional security dimension. Mogherini made it clear that a regional environment has to be created conducive to the implementation of the deal. That means engaging Iran in discussions on regional crises: first of all and urgently, on Syria, but also on Lebanon, Yemen, and Afghanistan. Again, such an approach, if it takes into account Iran’s legitimate security interests rather than just assume that it will comply with the EU preferences, is much more likely to elicit Iran’s constructive behavior in the region than Clinton’s vow to “confront Iran across the board” and “defend the Gulf allies against the Iranian aggression.” Iran’s influence in the region is an unavoidable fact, and confronting it would only motivate Tehran to assert this influence in objectionable ways.
Another emerging pillar of the EU post-deal strategy is a renewed push to strengthen the global non-proliferation regime. Although the Iran deal is a milestone for regional non-proliferation, Mogherini promised to reinvigorate diplomatic work on full ratification of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and on advancing the goal of a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction.
Engagement also seems to be more productive than confrontation on the issue of human rights in Iran. As Mogherini recalled, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif himself raised the possibility of a dialogue in this area during the final press conference in Vienna following the conclusion of negotiations. Informal political dialogue on a senior level between EU and Iranian officials on human rights is set to resume in the near future.
To forge ahead with this ambitious agenda, the EU will have to reinforce its institutional and political presence in Iran. Now that the nuclear deal has been reached, a major obstacle has been removed from opening a long-overdue EU delegation in Tehran.
The nuclear deal is only the beginning of a long road toward a fully functional EU-Iran relationship. But Mogherini’s speech in Strasbourg has provided a sense of direction and purpose on the EU side. The subsequent debate in the European Parliament has shown that the majority of Euro MPs, except a handful who doggedly repeat the MKO-provided bullet points, broadly share her approach. With the member states and the European Parliament on her side, Mogherini can feel confident about her new Iran strategy.
This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament.