Europe’s Iranian Imperative

MADRID – Last month, with the world’s attention fixed on the crisis in Crimea and the search for Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, the latest round of negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 (the United States, China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom, plus Germany) passed quietly in Vienna. Even with discussions set to continue next week, the talks’ outcome remains far from certain – and world leaders cannot afford to become distracted.

This is especially true for Europe, whose unified approach to Iran has been invaluable up to this point. Indeed, it was the bite of European sanctions that ultimately brought Iran to the negotiating table, and the force of unified European diplomacy facilitated the “joint plan of action,” which set out the terms for reaching a comprehensive long-term agreement within six months.

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But now, at the plan’s halfway point, there has been little concrete progress, with last month’s negotiations producing no headway on two key issues being discussed: the acceptable level for uranium enrichment in Iran and the future of the heavy-water reactor at Arak. The sharp contrast between this lack of achievement and Iran’s recent declarations about reaching a final deal by July raises important questions about Iran’s strategy and goals – questions that negotiators must consider carefully when determining the best approach.

The key to success is the background against which the process plays out. Iran is a land of contrasts. On a recent visit organized by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), the coexistence of entrenched tradition and rapid transformation was starkly apparent.

Central Tehran – ebullient with young people and high-heeled women donning testimonial headscarves and mid-thigh jackets over pants – embodies a thirst for openness. More than 60% of Iranians were born after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and more than 40% were born after the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980’s. For them, the revolution is a part of history, not the main source of their personal values.

The toll taken by years of tough economic sanctions is also apparent. Despite Iranian officials’ best efforts to downplay the sanctions’ impact, it is difficult to spin inflation in excess of 30% and projected GDP growth of just 1% this year.

The combination of a young population and a crumbling economy is a combustible mix, one that amounts to an existential threat to the regime – and the regime knows it. In this sense, the imperative to reach a prosperity-enhancing agreement with the international community is greater than ever for Iran’s leadership.

Furthermore, Iran’s negotiating style, like its capital city, can be both fatiguing and confusing. Just moments after elaborating at length on the Koran’s prohibition of nuclear weapons, an interlocutor would declare that the underground Fordow nuclear facility’s impregnability to airstrikes must be central to any deal.

The reality is that Iran does not envisage giving up its nuclear breakout capacity. The negotiations are aimed not at eradication, but at lengthening lead-time – specifically, limiting uranium-enrichment levels to 3.5%, establishing a strong inspections regime, and reaching an agreement on the Arak nuclear facility. But even this may not happen. After all, Iranian officials have thus far not demonstrated their commitment to accepting stringent and verifiable checks.

Moreover, Iran has managed to separate the nuclear negotiations from broader, related issues like its ballistic-missile program, its support for groups like Hezbollah, and its domestic human-rights record. With the US loath to introduce potential spoilers into the mix, there is no chance that any of these issues will be up for discussion. In this context, EU High Representative Catherine Ashton’s meeting with dissidents during her most recent trip to Tehran was merely a symbolic gesture.

This leaves Iran the opening it needs to place a strategic bet that the Syrian conflict will generate increasing friction between the West and Iran’s regional archrival, Saudi Arabia. For Iran, a staunch supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, a weaker US-Saudi relationship is key to shifting the regional balance of power – especially if it is accompanied by the easing of Western economic sanctions.

To some degree, this hope is reinforced by Iran’s perception of US President Barack Obama as a motivated partner in the nuclear talks. After all, a long-term agreement would be both a singular foreign-policy achievement for Obama and a boon to his efforts to disentangle the US from the Middle East.

But Iran also recognizes that the clock is ticking. Obama’s presidency is coming to an end, the Republicans are poised to regain control of the Senate in November’s mid-term election, and Democrats are increasingly reticent to be viewed as “soft on Iran.” As a result, the US Congress appears to be growing more hostile toward a deal; indeed, the longer it takes to conclude a final agreement, the more likely Congress is to scupper it.

In this context, Europe has a key role to play. While Europe’s reputation for foreign-policy “softness” continues to shape Iranian perceptions, the EU’s role in compelling Iran to negotiate underpins the current talks. Likewise, it was France’s insistence on more stringent controls that initially blocked the agreement in Geneva last November.

A decade ago, Europe disappointed Iran by withdrawing from negotiations, under pressure from the US – a move that some have suggested aided former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s rise to power. Today, Europe will be critical to driving progress, particularly in the event that the US Congress torpedoes a sensible agreement.

Indeed, on Iran, Europe’s unified approach has enabled it to have a greater impact than on any other significant foreign-policy issue. This should be regarded as a model for the future and a lesson for the present. By preserving its unity of purpose and maintaining the pressure and negotiating momentum that it has generated, Europe can demonstrate to Iran, the US, and itself that it has what it takes to be a major global actor.