Don’t take a peaceful Iran for granted

Europe's World

Picture of Bijan Khajehpour
Bijan Khajehpour

Bijan Khajehpour is Managing Partner of Vienna-based Atieh International

Iran is at an important juncture in its post-revolutionary development. The signing and implementation of the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signifies the consolidation of a new direction in Iran’s international positioning – an opportunity that should be seized by the European Union to forge a more constructive relationship through which a number of regional and international issues could be addressed.

Experts agree that post-revolutionary Iran has always been the scene for competition between two main schools of thought in foreign policy. The first, the confrontational approach, frames Iran’s relations with the West within an enmity in which the West opposes Iran’s progress, and Iran in turn ‘stands up’ to secure its rights and independence. This attitude has been consolidated through past actions, especially Western animosity and sanctions, to produce a security-minded and repressive domestic politics, which were witnessed clearly during the Ahmadinejad years.

The conciliatory approach, now sometimes referred to as the ‘positive-sum approach’, attaches importance to ‘easing tensions’ and finding ways for Iran to cooperate with the West, despite ongoing competition and disagreement over regional and international issues. This attitude prevailed in the reformist government of President Mohammad Khatami to produce a close collaboration with the US on Afghanistan in 2001 as well as a Grand Bargain proposal in 2003.

Western animosity and sanctions produce a security-minded and repressive domestic politics

There is no doubt that President Hassan Rouhani’s election in 2013, as well as the February 2016 twin polls that elected a new Majles and a new Assembly of Experts, moved the political pendulum back to the conciliatory approach – the 2015 nuclear agreement being perhaps the clearest consequence of its revival among Iran’s executive branch. But its sustainability will depend on the success of Iran’s moderate forces in showing the benefits of this policy orientation. A clear reason for the emergence of confrontation in 2005 through the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was the failed US strategy under President George W Bush in the invasion of Iraq’s aftermath. As such, there is no doubt that external dynamics can influence the internal developments of Iran.

A high degree of distrust towards western countries, especially the United States, already prevails, as was showcased during the 20th March speech by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, in which he accused the US of not respecting the nuclear deal. The allegation was linked to the fact that bank transactions haven’t yet normalised in the post-sanction era.

As such, at the core of the EU’s policy towards Iran should be a focus on regaining the confidence of the country’s political elite. To disprove the narrative that the West is against Iran’s progress, the EU needs to invest in what could be termed a new version of ‘Ostpolitik’ a la Willy Brandt – a policy designed to increase mutual understanding and steer away from conflict. Key components of such a policy would include agreeing that the rapprochement with Iran be a long-term process rather than a short-term deal, and acknowledging that the Islamic Republic should be respected as a responsible regional power. Iran is in fact proactively participating in the Syria talks as well as in the fight against Daesh. This is also seen in the positive role Iranian culture can play in containing the jihadist views that have been promoted by the Wahhabi brand of Islamic extremism.

Beyond the political and cultural advantages of a closer relationship, the EU needs to pay greater attention to the socioeconomic dimensions of more intense ties with Iran. It would be a mistake to view Iran as a consumer market and try to promote European exports to Iran. The country needs to be seen as a partner on multiple levels, as a key player in the international energy market, as a source of economic and technological innovation and a potential partner for co-investments in the entire region. Top Iranian leaders have left no ambiguity that creating employment opportunities is their top priority. This means creating value in the Iranian economy, which can then be a backbone for the greater regional development that is so needed to induce a degree of stability into an otherwise challenging region.

Iranian leaders have left no ambiguity that creating employment opportunities is their top priority

The EU should therefore communicate to Iranian and international stakeholders that it is in favour of technological and economic progress in Iran. Such a step would also be in line with the stated goals of the so-called ‘20-Year Economic Perspective’ document, which calls for Iran to become the region’s top economic and technological power by 2025.

EU policies have to be designed and implemented in a way that doesn’t lead to additional tensions among key regional powers. The EU can achieve this by connecting to a discourse that the current Iranian administration uses extensively: the belief in developing win-win formulas, and the understanding that no country will benefit from causing insecurity in another country. This guiding theory contributed strongly to the success of the nuclear negotiations, and could also be the formula for resolving the Syria crisis. The EU will have to look proactively for scenarios that will create win-win solutions for regional players, and by extending the benefits to the EU, one can even achieve win-win-win scenarios. These could emerge in creative regional investment schemes, platforms for security cooperation, promoting a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction, investing in regional energy interconnectivity, and so on.

The EU should look at Iran as a regional partner for peace. This doesn’t mean that the EU and Iran will see eye-to-eye on all key issues, but it would mean a more respectful strategy underpinning dialogue and engagement, and one in which both sides won’t allow areas of disagreement such as human rights to dominate the debate. These themes can be included in a comprehensive relationship, but the first goal is for both sides to regain a certain degree of confidence in the value of future cooperation.

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