Europe’s unique opportunity to engage with Iran


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Arshin Adib-Moghaddam
Arshin Adib-Moghaddam

For all of us who have been involved in making the case for a nuclear deal with Iran, the agreement struck on 14th July 2015 is nothing short of historic. I remember the situation in November 2010, when the talk was of the danger of war with Iran. Even then, during a period when diplomacy and reconciliation seemed to be impossible, I chose to focus on the European angle of the conflict. I argued that the EU should be as neutral as possible in the stand-off between Iran and the United States, and should use its diplomatic capital to contain and mitigate the enmity between the two countries.

This was meant to signal to decision-makers and stakeholders that a comprehensive deal with Iran must be approached as a positive-sum game: no one wins at the expense of another party and in the end the sum of wins and losses should be positive for all stakeholders involved. Once this formula was adopted and a language of mutual respect ensued, the details of the agreement were easier to negotiate.

The EU holds immense cultural capital when it comes to dealing with Iran

The European factor continues to be pivotal in the post-agreement phase. Europe has immediate interests in closer relations with Iran. First, given that Russia continues to pose a threat inthe east, Europe is well advised to continue to diversify its energy supplies to reduce any undue reliance on Moscow. Iran is uniquely positioned at the crossroads of several pipeline routes from Afghanistan, the southern Caucasus to Turkey and several maritime routes in the north (Caspian Sea) and the south (Persian Gulf). With its vast oil resources and the second largest gas reserves in the world, Iran could be a reliable partner in supplying energy to Europe – even when renewable energy resources are rightly prioritised in the long term.

Second, Iran could be turned into a constructive force for regional stability, in particular in the battle against terrorist movements such as al-Qaeda and Daesh (the so-called Islamic State). Iran has been fighting these movements in Syria and Iraq for years now. Their threat, common to Iran and Europe, could be taken as another pathway along which trust can be built and common interests are identified. A similar option applies to Afghanistan. Iran, Europe and the United States have cooperated in the past to bolster the central government in Kabul and to ward off the Talibanisation of the area. Today, this cooperation is more vital than ever.

Third, Iran and Europe have been connected for centuries through trade, immigration and cultural interactions. As a result, there are many second and third generation Europeans with an Iranian background, several of whom hold influential posts. Thus, the EU holds immense cultural capital when it comes to dealing with Iran. Taken together with the geographic proximity that the United States lacks, Europe is uniquely positioned to engage the country. This should embolden European decision-makers to pursue a third diplomatic track, next to the economic and strategic ones outlined above, which should be geared to a mature and multifaceted “philosophical dialogue” with Iran. We should learn from the mistakes of the past, when countries such as Iran were primarily viewed as compliant and opportune energy suppliers and not as full partners with real people whose aspirations are as important as the national interest defined by the state.

The European factor continues to be pivotal in the post-agreement phase

This philosophical factor in the discussion between Europe and Iran means that while the nuclear agreement itself should be treated as a separate matter and not mixed up with a human rights dialogue, confining an opening to Iran to strategic and economic matters is short-sighted and counter-productive. The case has to be made to Iranian decision-makers that no state can be entirely secure merely by focusing on external legitimacy gained through international agreements. In today’s West Asia, legitimacy and by extension full security can only be achieved through the approval of the populace. Iran’s abysmal human rights record is an impediment to such approval and a threat to the security of the state and by extension to the implementation of any viable agreement.

A human rights dialogue would have to be non-confrontational, low key and as non-political as possible. By the latter, I mean that progress on human rights in Iran should not become a condition in the nuclear negotiations. But at the same time, Europe cannot be seen to forge close relations with a country that hangs homosexuals and harasses other sexual and ethnic minorities. For Iranians, the nuclear deal may have been the battle of the decade, but democracy has been the battle of the century. The EU should pursue this third, “philosophical”, track in its diplomatic repertoire in order to stay true to its own institutionalised human rights norms. Betrayal of these norms is not only detrimental to the European cause, it is counter-intuitive to global security. As such, opening up a new chapter with Iran will only yield strategic and long-term results if this philosophical dialogue is implemented.

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