Boost the momentum with Iran – don’t slow it down

The next few months will present some of the biggest, and at times unexpected, challenges for those advocating a political solution addressing Iran’s nuclear programme. 

In its annual Scorecard, ECFR awarded Europe top marks for its stance on Iran in 2013 that culminated in a diplomatic breakthrough. The next few months will present some of the biggest, and at times unexpected, challenges for those advocating a political solution addressing Iran’s nuclear programme. In effect, the West (Europe and the US) and Iran have entered a long diplomacy marathon that will demand difficult compromises to repair their relations. The opposition voices will eventually build up from all sides and present moments when negotiators prefer to halt efforts halfway given the difficulties facing them. Marathon runners need a wellspring of motivation to see them through to the finish line. The West and Iran must boost the positive momentum that is inspiring the current rapprochement to balance the “trust deficit” that has plagued their relations for far too long.

While presidents Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani have hailed the nuclear talks as a success back home, they continue to face a hard-line backlash that has slowed the drive for diplomacy. Europe, on the other hand, has witnessed a warming of relations with Tehran over this winter that is a welcomed counterbalance to opposition pressures in the US and Iran. All sides can step further in boosting the future momentum required to sustain a détente. Europe in particular has added capacity to do so, particularly in regards to safeguarding negotiations with Iran.

Affirming momentum

The Joint Plan of Action (JPA) agreed last November between Iran and the E3+3 (comprising of Germany, Britain, France, China, Russia, and the US) has created a new atmosphere for diplomacy. After more than three decades of intense distrust, Obama and Rouhani are wisely preparing their respective citizenry and internal opposition factions to accept difficult compromises that must be made during the future nuclear negotiations.

Rouhani has attempted to calm opposition at home, which argues that Iran has offered too many concessions under the JPA. In parallel, Rouhani’s administration has begun 2014 by advocating readiness to engage with the international community at two high profile events. First, during the World Economic Forum, Rouhani outlined plans for economic revival while suggesting that the Syrian conflict could not be resolved if Iran remains excluded from peace talks. He also held meetings with major European oil companies in Davos, projecting an impression that Iran is serious about wanting sanctions relief. Second, during the Munich Security Conference, Iran’s foreign minster, Javad Zarif, pledged that Iran would continue to implement the interim deal in good faith. This was clearly meant to dispel fears that there are incentives for Iran to stall or even backtrack on its obligations during the comprehensive talks.

Meanwhile, Obama has battled against attempts by Congress members to pass a bill for new sanctions against Iran heralded by a coalition of neoconservative and hawkish Republicans and pro-Israel groups led by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The passing of such a bill into law would have amounted to a direct breach of the JPA and likely sealed the fate of the nuclear talks. Obama’s sophisticated campaign on Capitol Hill (backed by many influential senators) and his repeated firm promise to veto the bill, affirmed his commitment to diplomacy with Iran. This effort, that has made the question of new sanctions essentially moot, was an important gesture for Iranian negotiators who had doubted Obama’s ability to stand up to Congress.

From the European side, there has been outreach to Tehran on an institutional and bilateral level. The European Parliament sent a delegation to Iran in December after several failed attempts to do so over the last six years. This opened channels of communication between the European Union and Iran on issues of human rights and trade that have largely halted in the decade of nuclear talks. In addition, Europe’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, is set to visit Iran for the first time this month. Although the nuclear talks will undoubtedly be on the agenda, Ashton’s focus will be on regional developments. Through such interactions, Europe is relaying a message that Iran’s conciliatory attitude can be a gateway to address wider issues of common interest so far overshadowed by the nuclear file.

On the bilateral front, Italian minister of foreign affairs, Emma Bonino, broke the taboo back in December by becoming the highest ranked European official to meet with Rouhani in Tehran. Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt followed in her footsteps this week, and Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski has planned an official visit to Iran in March. By sending a parliamentary delegation to Tehran, Germany and Britain  (which have consistently supported increased sanctions against Iran) have also signalled a softening in their bilateral relations. Contrary to what the neoconservative members of US Congress have suggested, discussions regarding commercial ties between Europe and Iran are expressly conditional on future sanctions relief. These are exploratory talks that highlight to Iran the benefits it can gain from future sanctions easing. Furthermore, the measures taken by Europe symbolise an affirmation to Rouhani that the West also has an interest in pursuing the diplomatic track and that it will act in good faith when doing so.

Slowing momentum

Since the signing of the JPA, certain events have slowed down the momentum created by this diplomatic breakthrough. First, hard-line opposition groups in Iran and the US continue to object to the JPA’s terms and generally any thaw in US-Iran relations. This has resulted in a ping-pong of hard-line outbursts between members of the US Congress and Iranian members of parliament targeted at undermining the JPA. This was best illustrated when senators Robert Menendez and Mark Kirk introduced a bill for added sanctions against Iran, and Iranian parliamentarians responded by introducing a bill to increase enrichment capabilities to 60 percent. This adds to the trust deficit and has the ability to damage the authority of negotiators for diplomatic progress, which is probably the intention of hardliners on both sides.

Second, the slow pace at which Europe fulfilled its duties under the JPA marginally dampened the positive mood surrounding the negotiations. When Tehran began implementing the terms of the JPA on 20 January, Europe had yet to publicly announce which banks it had designated for humanitarian related transactions (as per their agreement under the JPA) nor did Europe provide clear guidance on how these transactions could be processed to Iran. This fuelled suspicion amongst Rouhani’s sceptics that if the West could not adequately meet its least politically sensitive obligations under the JPA, it would struggle to provide meaningful sanctions relief as part of a final deal.

Third, disinviting Iran from the Syrian peace conference on the same day that it began implementing the JPA damaged the positive spirit surrounding diplomatic endeavours between the West and Iran. This poorly timed incident was a blunt reminder that the US remains pivotal to decision making within the UN. This provided Rouhani’s opposition with a chance to claim the revocation of the invite as evidence that the US remains inherently anti-Iran. Further, besides being embarrassing for the UN, the misunderstandings between Zarif and UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon tarnished the good faith aura that Iran has tried to accumulate since the Geneva Accord.

Boosting momentum

Without turning a blind eye to their challenging circumstances, the West and Iran should boost the momentum behind the diplomatic track by focusing on areas of success and keeping the channels of dialogue open. There are two separate but parallel negotiations on Iran’s nuclear file. In the next round of talks between the E3+3 and Iran, set for 18 February in Vienna, parties will begin to consider the terms of a comprehensive nuclear deal. Negotiations between the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Iran are scheduled for 8 February in New York to discuss the historic aspects of Iran’s nuclear programme. The success of both these channels must be supported as the E3+3 negotiations will be impacted by how forthright Iran is with the IAEA regarding previously unanswered questions. The aim of boosting the momentum surrounding these talks is to allow breathing space for dialogue to continue despite hard-line attacks and technical difficulties.

While Rouhani and Obama continue their struggle against domestic opposition, Europe has the advantage of having fewer internal pressures blocking its development with Iran. At this moment, the best step for Europe would be to publicly and privately herald the diplomatic momentum in three ways.

First, representatives from European member states with good ties to the US administration and Congress should increase their contacts with American counterparts to stress the potential benefits and necessity of repaired relations with Iran. Second, Europe should increase the number of official visits and exchanges with Iran. However, European officials should not at this stage demand measures from Rouhani that are likely to ignite opposition groups inside Tehran (such as insisting to meet with reformists Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi, whose house arrest remains a sensitive issue). This will reassure Rouhani that there is real political willingness from the West to address the trust deficit from its part and allow Iran’s administration to incrementally reform itself. Third, Europe needs to move faster when implementing its obligations throughout the nuclear talks. Given the amount of resources dedicated to creating the framework of sanctions against Iran, similar contingencies should be provided for timely fulfilment of commitments as evidence of good faith from the West.   

Europe should be aware of the advantage it has in having direct contact with both the US and Iran and be prepared to use the means available to boost the positive momentum surrounding the détente with Tehran.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Deputy Director, Middle East and North Africa programme
Senior Policy Fellow

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