Europe matters in Iran’s search for its identity


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Tarja Cronberg
Tarja Cronberg

The debate in the aftermath of the Iran deal has concentrated on what happens after 15 years, when the rigorous inspection regime expires and Iran becomes a normal member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The question many focus on is whether Iran will expand its uranium enrichment programme and soon have enough fissile material to create a bomb. Instead, the debate should be about what happens during those 15 years. Will Iran cooperate and respect the agreements it has signed, or will we see an Iran that continues to support terrorism and build clandestine nuclear facilities? The outcome is by no means given, although conservatives in the US Congress and the Prime Minister of Israel seem to believe so.

The deal creates an extremely delicate balance between control and autonomy, between intervention and sovereignty. Inspections over the next 15 years will be intrusive, and much more rigorous than the most extensive control regime of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Military facilities will be inspected, though there is a 24-day access waiting time. The whole world will be waiting for signs of non-compliance and the networks of Israeli intelligence will no doubt be extremely effective in detecting them.

The deal creates an extremely delicate balance between control and autonomy, between intervention and sovereignty

Nuclear programme-related economic sanctions will be removed. Trade relations with foreign companies in the oil and gas sector are already under way. Other sectors will no doubt follow. During isolation, Iran’s economy has been one of resistance, emphasising its indigenous nature. The political balance between integration into the world economy and the economy of resistance will no doubt create ideological clashes. Here, the Revolutionary Guard will be a critical actor. Will they gain or lose by the transformation?

It would be naïve to expect Iran to change overnight. But it is equally so to assume that bombing Iran would change its behaviour. The implementation of the deal will be critical for the new balance of power. The regime will fight for its survival, and if it suspects that the West is hindering its development by limiting R&D or by threatening the return of sanctions, the hard-liners will gain support. If the Islamic revolution is not threatened and the economy improves, the pragmatist policies of the current president will be at the forefront.

“The best solution to the problem of proliferation of WMD is that countries should no longer feel they need them. If possible, political solutions should be found to the problems which lead them to seek WMD. The more secure countries feel, the more likely they are to abandon programmes: disarmament measures can lead to a virtuous circle just as weapons programmes can lead to an arms race.”

This statement is at the core of the European Union’s WMD strategy, approved in 2003. Furthermore, the strategy underlines the need to use all EU instruments to achieve a broad approach. This includes a versatile tool- box ranging from trade agreements to human rights dialogues, from cultural exchanges to R&D cooperation. In 2003-2005 as part of the diplomatic effort, the EU offered a dialogue on trade and support for Iran’s membership in the WTO. In contrast, the later phases of the negotiation process dealt only with the nuclear file; even questions of human rights were deliberately excluded. This was a choice made to increase the West’s leverage in relation to Iran.

Now is the time to rethink a broad EU approach to Iran. How can the EU ensure that Iran, after 15 years of inspections and restrictions, no longer feels the need for nuclear weapons? The first objective should be cultural exchanges and people-to-people contacts to break the past isolation on both sides. Student exchange programmes and R&D cooperation should be designed for young people in Iran and the EU.  Common interests exist, among other things, in drug trafficking, as drugs from Afghanistan reach Europe through Iran.

A new EU approach to Iran has to respect the sensitive balance created by the deal

While the US has not had any diplomatic relations with Iran since 1979, EU member states have embassies in Tehran to enable information exchanges and contacts. As a result of the European Parliament’s official delegation to Iran in December 2013, there was support for an EU representation in Tehran. This should be given renewed consideration.

The Iran deal is not only about whether the nuclear programme is peaceful or not. I agree with those, and especially with Robert Litwak of the Wilson Center, who see the nuclear negotiations as part of Iranian identity politics. More than thirty years have passed since the revolution. The Iran-Iraq war ended more than twenty years ago. Half of the population is under 30 years. Iran is at a crossroads in its relations with the international community. Only Iranians themselves can determine the outcome of this soul-searching. But the process can be destroyed from the outside.

A new EU approach to Iran has to respect the sensitive balance created by the deal. Iran has accepted intrusive inspections but will guard its sovereign rights. While trade delegations are rushing to Tehran, the country is not going to abandon its resistance economy overnight. The West has a history of regime change in Iran, both implemented (1953) and planned (2003). With this in mind, it is no surprise that the western form of democracy is not held in high esteem in Tehran. Cautious engagement will be better than coercive containment.

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