Friday, November 21, 2014

Bringing Iran in from the Cold

MADRID – Rapprochement between Iran and the West has long been a “white whale” of global politics. But it increasingly appears that the world may be on the verge of a new era, characterized by a wary yet crucial collaboration between countries – particularly Iran and the United States – that had been irreconcilable since Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979.

The imperative for such cooperation drove last month’s Bergedorf Round Table, organized by the Körber Foundation in conjunction with the Institute for Political and International Studies. At the event, which I attended, 30 politicians, senior officials, and experts from Europe, the US, and Iran considered the relationship’s future, producing some important insights that should inform future policy decisions.

With countries across the Middle East crumbling and territorial sovereignty disintegrating – most notably in Iraq – this effort could not be timelier. To reverse the region’s slide into chaos, it needs strong stabilizing forces that can underpin coordinated action aimed at curtailing sectarian violence. Here, Iran has a key role to play.

Beyond its historical and cultural depth, which gives it a certain authority in the Middle East, Iran has one of the region’s few functioning governments capable of responding to geopolitical developments. This is to say nothing of its massive oil reserves, which secure its critical role in the complex global energy equation, particularly as it applies to Europe, which is working to reduce its dependence on Russian energy imports.

The problem is that Iran has consistently squandered its leadership potential, choosing instead to act as a spoiler, especially through the use of proxy armies. This disruptive tendency reinforces the need for collaboration, underpinned by strong incentives for Iran to maintain a constructive, moderate foreign policy.

To this end, the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the E3+3 (France, Germany, and the UK plus China, Russia, and the US) are an important first step. Iran’s nuclear ambitions have long posed a major security threat in the Middle East, as they raise the risk of preemptive military action by Israel or the US and, perhaps even more harrowing, of a regional arms race with the Gulf states and Turkey. Though fragmentation and sectarian violence have recently become a more urgent danger, the risks associated with Iran’s emergence as a nuclear power should not be underestimated.

Further underlying the significance of the current talks are Iran’s internal political dynamics. If Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is unable to offer citizens concrete economic returns on his engagement with the West – especially loosened international sanctions – by next year’s parliamentary election, hardliners will recapture their dominance over Iran’s foreign policy. Given this, the West has finally found in Rouhani and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif motivated – and ostensibly effective – interlocutors.

Perhaps the most important motivation for the E3+3 negotiations is that resolving Iran’s nuclear status has become a sine qua non for bringing the country back into the fold of the international community. Iran cannot play a stabilizing role in the Middle East as a pariah state.

This is not to say that negotiators should pursue a deal at any cost. A weak agreement that lacks adequate verification mechanisms and leaves Iran with sufficient enrichment capacity for short-term weapon development would do more harm than good. Beyond stoking Israeli security fears and fueling increased opposition from an already skeptical US Congress, such a pact would strengthen the position of Iran’s most obstructionist elements, all but eliminating the possibility of constructive future engagement.

Reaching an effective, fair agreement will undoubtedly be difficult; but there is reason to believe that it is possible. The current round of talks has produced some progress on one of the issue’s two major sticking points: the heavy-water reactor at Arak.

The other key issue, centrifuges, is more problematic. But alternative metrics – for example, focusing on overall production volume, instead of the number of centrifuges – together with robust monitoring guarantees, could facilitate an agreement.

With the nuclear issue resolved, Western leaders could advance cooperation with Iran in other critical areas – beginning with security and stability in the Middle East. Of course, Iran’s involvement in this effort, while important, would not be sufficient to stop the current carnage. Given the sectarian nature of regional conflicts – for which the Iranian authorities bear a heavy responsibility – engagement with Iran must be conducted within a broader framework of regional cooperation, in particular with the Gulf states.

Given that the US and Europe have neither the appetite nor the wherewithal to respond effectively to the cataclysmic developments in the Middle East, solutions will need to come, at least partly, from countries with strong influence on the ground. But, in pursuing collaboration with countries like Iran, Western leaders must remain vigilant, and avoid allowing a sense of urgency to overwhelm their regard for these regimes’ disruptive potential.

Bearing in mind that caveat, the potential benefits of Western engagement with Iran cannot be overstated. Over the coming weeks, the US and the EU will have the opportunity to make important strides toward a more stable, secure Middle East – an outcome that would benefit the entire world.

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    1. Portrait of Ana Palacio

      CommentedAna Palacio

      Dear J. Von,

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments. It is true that efforts to “thaw” relations have been ongoing since before the nuclear talks (indeed there have been efforts dating back to the 90’s)—however it is premature to say that these attempts have resulted in a fundamental shift in ties between Iran and the Atlantic Community. Relations are still frosty—though shifting.

      As for the linkage between resolving the nuclear issue and progressively bringing Iran in from the cold to contribute to regional solutions, while there is a long way to go on both counts (as of today it appears that the most likely outcome of the Geneva talks will be an extension of the July 20 deadline), it is not simply wishful thinking to suggest that normalizing relations on the nuclear front will make it easier to work with Iran in other areas. As noted in the article, the nuclear issue is a fundamental component of Iran’s pariah status. Removing this thorn is an essential, though not sufficient, element of productive engagement with Iran more broadly.

    2. Commentedhari naidu

      Foreign Policy Institute (DC) is streaming the discussion below on Iran nuclear deal from US Senate Building on July 17, 2014.

    3. Commentedhari naidu

      Public Forum: "High Standards and High Stakes: Defining Terms of an Acceptable Iran Nuclear Deal", Thursday, July 17, 2014. Hart (US) Senate Office Building Room 902.

      Just to give you an idea of what US Congress is doing to make sure that there is no way Obama can bring Iran in from the cold, as you would like it to happen.
      They are demanding a veto power on removing the sanctions - and have written to Obama with signature of (2/3) US Congress.
      My take is that both Russia and China are not taking part this weekend Vienna talks because of BRICS meeting in Brazil.
      However it also demonstrates that framework of P5+1 negotiations, in Vienna, has (also) moved away from NPT/IAEA Safeguards regulations; thereby potentially introducing Israeli demands that Iran have no capacity for nuclear processing - however contrary to NPT safeguards under IAEA.

      Thursday, July 17, 2014

      Hart Senate Office Building
      Room 902

    4. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

      Ms Palacio urges the E3+3 to bring "Iran in from the cold"! In fact mutual efforts to thaw the "Cold War" atomosphere had been made by Tehran and Washington, even before Hassan Rouhani became president last year. Supreme Leader Khamenei must have endorsed them.
      The interim deal struck last November in Geneva was a result of months of secret negotiations between US and Iranian officials, at the same time as official negotiations went on. In March 2013 a small delegation led by John Kerry's deputy William Burns and Jake Sullivan, Joe Biden's top foreign policy adviser, boarded a military plane for Oman to meet their Iranian counterparts. The first high-level meeting took place in Muskat and the Obama administration began laying the groundwork for the nuclear deal. Since Rouhani took office, he gave new impetus to the US effort The parties had met at least five times, before they took centre stage in Geneva.
      So far no significant progress been made, as the parties can't agree on some "sticky points", which involve technical details. Unfortunately Rouhani is facing criticism from hardliners at home, who claim negotiators are ignoring their national interests and that the West has not shown the same eagerness and sincerity as Iran. They also accuse their government of being duped by the US in a desperate attempt to conclude a deal with the West and end economic sanctions. Rouhani feels the pressure from his people and the ruling elite. Although the Supreme Leader backs the negotiations, he also warns against ignoring Iran's right to go nuclear. It's unclear whether the issue will be resolved by the deadline of 20 July,
      All the while Iraq and Syria, two of Iran's close allies are embroiled in their civil wars. Ms Palacio suggests the West should "advance cooperation with Iran in other critical areas – beginning with security and stability in the Middle East". It is true that Iran exerts influence over the Shia populations in various countries. Sunni rulers accuse Iran of fomenting unrest. Despite the sectarian strife Iran does have good relations with most Sunni Gulf States. It's only with Saudi Arabia that Tehran has a problem. The Saudis are said to suppress their Shia minority in the oil-rich east. The tiny Sunni ruling elite in Bahrain is ruling over the Shia majority, which complains about discriminations etc. These grievances generate hatred and lead to sectarian violence. When it comes to dealing with these issues, the leadership in Tehran leaves them to the Revolutionary Guard, whose formidable Quds Forces send fighters to Iraq and Syria, which are now battlefields of proxy wars fought between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
      It is definitely not "overstated" to involve Iran in resolving the conflicts in the region. Yet it is a wishful thing to believe that "in the coming weeks, the US and the EU will have the opportunity to make important strides toward a more stable, secure Middle East – an outcome that would benefit the entire world".