European Affairs

European diplomacy and the Iranian nuclear negotiations     Print Email


After twenty months of intense negotiations, the P5+1 countries – the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Russia and China – and Iran reached a landmark accord on 14 July to limit and monitor Teheran’s nuclear program. As part of the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action [hereafter JCPOA], Iran agreed to a number of concessions, including the following: reducing its number of centrifuges by two thirds; cutting its uranium stockpile by 98% and maintaining the remaining reserves at a low level of enrichment; redesigning the reactor of its heavy-water facility so that it cannot produce weapons-grade plutonium; and allowing the inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency to access any sites viewed as suspicious, as well as visiting military sites on request.

Taken together, the P5+1 states believe that Iran’s break-out time – or period it would take to build an atomic weapon in the absence of the accord – has increased from two-three months to a year. In exchange for these concessions, Iran is expected to receive $100 billion in frozen assets and to witness the likely lifting of US, United Nations and EU sanctions that have crippled its economy – as long as it continues to stand by the terms of the 14 July deal.

But, the accord has not been universally welcomed, especially in the United States. Throughout the negotiations, many members of Congress, especially on the Republican side, remained profoundly skeptical that the Obama administration, along with its partners, could hammer out an agreement with Iran that would be significant and acceptable; with overwhelming majorities, the Senate (98 to 1 on May 7) and the House of Representatives (400 to 25 on May 14) passed a bill that would give Congress the opportunity to review any accord signed by the White House.

As pointed out in The New York Times, after the deal was announced, critics in Congress quickly highlighted what they viewed as key weaknesses, including: “Iran’s ability to produce as much nuclear fuel as it wishes after year 15 of the agreement […] and to conduct research on advanced centrifuges after the eighth year. Moreover, the Iranians won the eventual lifting of an embargo on the import and export of conventional arms and ballistic missiles”. After receiving all documents, Congress will have sixty days to review the accord, before deciding to either do nothing, pass a resolution of approval or pass a resolution of disapproval; knowing that it would need a two-thirds majority to override a Presidential veto.

Throughout the negotiations and since the deal, European leaders have paid close attention to these domestic American debates, and even weighed in at times. Back in January, UK Prime Minister David Cameron, during a visit in Washington, personally called several Senators, arguing that “it's the opinion of the United Kingdom that further sanctions, or further threat of sanctions, at this point won't actually help”. Two months later, European officials publicly expressed their criticism of the open letter that 47 Republican Senators sent to Iran’s supreme leader. As Ellie Geranmayeh suggests, European leaders are hardly impressed by the role played by Congress in potentially holding up the nuclear deal with Iran they worked hard to negotiate; and the European Union sent a message to Congress when it quickly approved the JCPOA on 20 July.

Indeed, the stakes are also high for Europe. If Congress were to scupper the deal with Iran, it would be a major setback and blow for the European countries involved for a number of reasons. Although they share similar outlooks and goals, the interests of the transatlantic partners are not always identical when it comes to Iran. After all, the deal could provide an opportunity for EU states to expand existing commercial and political relations with Teheran. More importantly, the prolonged showdown with Iran over its nuclear program constituted from the beginning a major opportunity and test for Europe. Achieving the deal and making sure it is implemented properly would be tantamount to validating that Europe can develop a common foreign policy approach, that it can remain influential on the world stage and show the wherewithal to resolve a major international challenge.

Similar but not Identical Interests

The US and Europe may present a seemingly united front today when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program, but both travelled different paths to get to that point. As Gawdat Bahgat details, the US and Europe pursued very diverging approaches toward Iran since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979. The US and Iran broke off diplomatic ties in April 1980, in the midst of the hostage crisis, and since then their relations have mostly been dominated by hostility and mistrust. Since 1979, Washington has essentially tried to isolate and contain Teheran, whereas the Europeans have maintained diplomatic relations throughout this period in the hope of engaging Teheran and changing its behavior. In a nutshell, as Bahgat states, the US and Europe have continually engaged in a sort of unintentional ‘bad cop-good cop’ routine toward Iran.

The transatlantic divide over Iran became particularly apparent during the 1990s. While the Clinton administration tightened the screws on Iran through executive orders and Congress passed the 1996 Iran Libya Sanctions Act, the EU slowly sought to improve ties with Teheran. As chronicled by Walter Posch, Brussels reached out to Iran in 1992 to initiate a ‘critical dialogue’ – regular consultations where the EU brought up areas of concern, such as Iran’s human rights record and support for terrorism. After the election of the moderate Mohammad Khatami as president in 1997, the EU further upgraded relations and launched a ‘comprehensive dialogue’, which led to more formal exchanges that covered a wider number of issues. This dialogue, as Posch points out, did raise a lot of objections from the US and Israel who derided it as a ‘cheap cover for booming European business relations with the oil-rich Islamic Republic’.

Relations between the EU and Iran became more complicated after the August 2002 revelation, by an Iranian opposition group, that Teheran had secretly built nuclear facilities in Natanz and Arak, without notifying the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). But, it did not initially lead to a convergence between Europe and the US insofar as their attitudes toward Iran, quite the opposite. The EU3 (France, Germany and the United Kingdom) took the initiative to launch a diplomatic dialogue with Iran in the fall 2003 over its nuclear program not only because of its growing concern with the threat of proliferation, but also because it wanted to prevent the US from striking Iran after invading Iraq. The Bush administration made it clear that it opposed this diplomatic initiative, arguing instead that Iran should be referred to the Security Council because of its failure to comply with the IAEA demands, a move combated by the Europeans at first.

The transatlantic divide did, however, progressively fade over the years as Europeans and Americans increasingly adopted similar positions toward Iran’s nuclear program – including a shared commitment to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and a desire to preserve the Non-Proliferation Treaty. For one, Europe hardened its attitude toward Iran. The election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as President in summer 2005 led to a significant deterioration of relations with the EU as Iran disengaged from the diplomatic talks of the two previous years and resumed its uranium enrichment activities. In response, the EU3 lifted its opposition in 2006 to Iran being referred to the UN Security Council; China, Russia and the US were now added to the mediation efforts, turning the E3 into the P5+1. Additionally, the EU3 took further steps in the US direction by supporting over the years a number of sanctions against Teheran, be it within the UN Security Council or unilaterally at the EU level. As for the US, the Bush administration took a step in the European direction by accepting diplomacy with Iran as part of the dual track process – combining talks and sanctions. The US interest in engaging Teheran continued to grow significantly under the Obama administration.

Yet, although there has been considerable transatlantic convergence over the years on the Iranian nuclear dossier, important gaps still remain exist insofar as process and perceptions, especially between France and the United States. After all, Paris nearly blocked the November 2013 interim agreement between the P5+1 and Iran - which involved sanction relief in exchange for Iranian concessions - because of concerns over the heavy water nuclear facility in Arak. Moreover, as Joseph Bahout and Benjamin Haddad explained in a fascinating article, Paris’ doubts and frustrations about Washington intentions run deep. They reflect resentment over process and being kept out of the loop, and the fear that the nuclear negotiations had increasingly become a bilateral conversation between the US and Iran; differences over the content of a possible deal, the length of the agreement, the number of centrifuges and the make-up of inspections; and dismay over the US’ wider policies toward the Middle East, especially its timid approach to the Syrian civil war and the strategy against ISIS.

What the deal could mean for EU-Iranian relations

Its longer and more extensive history of engagement with Teheran means, unsurprisingly, that the EU could stand to benefit more, at least in the short-term, from a nuclear agreement with Iran than the US would. This would be particularly true for commercial ties. The critical and later comprehensive dialogues initiated in the 1990s between Brussels and Teheran went hand in hand, according to Thierry Coville, with blossoming trade between both parties: “EU exports to Iran increased from €3.9 billion in 1996 to €11.3 billion in 2006 and imports from €5.8 billion in 1996 to €14.1 billion in 2006. The main EU exports to Iran were machinery and appliances, transport equipment and chemicals, whereas oil represented 90 percent of EU imports from Iran. The EU also became Iran’s main trade partner. In 2006, the EU was the destination of 38 percent of Iranian oil exports and the main exporter to Iran (31 percent of Iran imports)”. In 2002, the EU initiated negotiations with Iran with the goal of signing a Trade and Cooperation Agreement.

The continuing nuclear dispute, however, reversed the momentum of EU-Iranian commercial relations in the last decade. The Trade and Cooperation negotiations remain on hold since August 2005, while the EU’s implementation of tough sanctions – especially the 2012 decision to adopt an oil embargo against Iran – contributed to a sharp drop in trade in recent years (see table below). In the 2012-13 period alone, total EU imports from Iran decreased by a staggering 86%; or evidence that the Europeans made far greater sacrifices than their American counterparts with the Iranian sanction regime, as the French Ambassador to the US, Gérard Araud, recently reminded his audience during an event at the Atlantic Council.

Trade in Goods (Exports to Iran) - Bilateral Trade Figures: € Million – Source of data: Eurostat









Table found in Ben Smith, “Iran, the nuclear negotiations and relations with the UK”, Library House of Commons, Standard Note SNIA/7010, 3 December 2014, page 11, accessible

The nuclear deal, along with the lifting of sanctions, could provide a golden opportunity for Europe to try and regain some of its lost ground in terms of trade relations with Iran. Granted, business ties would still face obstacles until the completion of the Trade and Cooperation negotiations, as well as because of Iran’s overbearing bureaucracy and weak legal system. But, as Coville argues, the large Iranian market, with nearly 80 Million people and an emerging urban middle class, offers many prospects for European firms, especially “in the fields of energy, automobiles, railway and aircraft industry (with Airbus), telecommunications and agro-business”.

In addition, Coville notes that trade with Iran includes a certain strategic component. With the Ukrainian crisis and European concerns about dependency on Russian energy supplies, the lifting of the embargo on oil and gas imports could turn Iran into a welcome alternative provider for Europe. At the same time, these same business prospects have also served to undermine Congress’ confidence in Europe and its general support for the nuclear deal with Iran. Thus, Democratic Senator Robert Menendez pointedly declared recently that: “I’d like to be able to trust Europe, but when they are frothing at the mouth about business interests, especially once those businesses interests are really entrenched, will it be so easy to call a violation a violation?”

Moreover, the nuclear agreement could create an impetus for the EU to deepen its ties with Iran, provided it takes advantage of the situation. It could first facilitate the establishment of more normal – the EU does not have a diplomatic mission in Teheran – and extensive diplomatic relations. Under High Representative Catherine Ashton, the EU took a leading role in the nuclear negotiations with Iran, but it did so by reducing Iran to the nuclear issue and ignoring any other bilateral issues of concern.

As Cornelius Adebahr argues, the EU cannot view the deal as an end in itself. Instead, it must think strategically and contemplate how it could broaden its dialogue with Teheran to tackle the other obstacles to better EU-Iranian relations, namely “Iran’s attitude toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; its domestic human rights situation; and its support for terrorist groups”. Finally, the nuclear deal could encourage wider cooperation with Iran to address some of the significant challenges plaguing the region – such as ISIS, Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria. The prospect of a more stable regional framework in the Middle East, as current EU High Representative Federica Mogherini pointed out, “would be a major game-changer for our security and the stability of our region”.

The EU as a power on the world stage

The nuclear deal with Iran could also provide a significant and needed validation for the idea of a common EU foreign policy. Granted, the ‘Big Three’ – Germany, France and the UK – took the lead in 2003 when it came to negotiations with Teheran and remain the main European representatives, which caused resentment at times with the other EU members. But, for the most part, the Big Three have sought to work in cooperation with the EU, as opposed to circumvent it. Throughout the nuclear showdown with Iran, France, Germany and the UK made sure to regularly brief and consult with their EU counterparts.

Moreover, in November 2004, the EU’s High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy, Javier Solana, officially joined the talks led by the Big Three and became the official spokesperson for them. He kept that role when the diplomatic framework was enlarged to include Russia, China and the US, and it is a responsibility that Solana’s successors, Catherine Ashton and Federica Mogherini, also inherited.

The negotiations with Iran have, thus, proved as much of a collective EU effort as they have been an individual one. They have also given a chance for the often criticized External Action Service (EAS), the EU’s diplomatic organization established in 2011, to highlight its worth and to show that it can contribute to developing a more coherent European foreign policy. For supporters of the EAS, the EU has essentially spoken with one voice on the Iranian dossier, unlike on other divisive matters like the Ukrainian crisis, and that has allowed it to be more effective than if the talks were solely in the hands of member states.

That matters greatly because the EU has expended a great deal of time and resources since 2003 toward ensuring a peaceful outcome in the negotiations with Iran, a rare key international dossier outside of Europe where it has been influential. As Riccardo Alcaro argues convincingly, it is worth remembering that it was the Europeans “who first engaged the Iranians, who devised the dual-track approach combining the offer of incentives with the threat of sanctions, and who facilitated the formation of the P5+1 […] The disappearance of the negotiating framework would all but remove Europe’s ability to influence the Iranian nuclear issue and it would deprive the EU of the highest profile international stage on which it has ever performed”. Indeed, as Alcaro adds, the nuclear framework has provided over the years an invaluable platform for the EU to engage with some of the other key great powers of the world.

The stakes remain high for the EU, and it cannot succumb to easy triumphalism. As Cornelius Adebahr argues, while the deal validates the EU’s slogan of effective multilateralism, it does not offer any solutions for the significant sectarian divides in the wider Middle East, nor does it curb all the more dangerous elements of Iranian foreign policy. Additionally, as Rem Kerteweg suggests, Europe, along with its P5+1 partners, will need to be diligent and invest enough resources to monitor Iran’s nuclear activities and keep it honest. A failure to do so would amount to throwing away all the efforts and prestige that Europe invested in the first place by engaging Iran and finding a peaceful solution to the nuclear crisis.

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