A decisive stage in the nuclear talks is approaching, as world powers aim to reach a political agreement with Iran this month. Europeans have cautiously but noticeably stepped up their game to safeguard the negotiations and, ultimately, their future relations with Iran. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and European Union High Representative Federica Mogherini have been leading the European initiative. These two are also likely to be the best placed to steer a much-needed reformulation of European foreign policy on Iran.
During his visit to Washington, D.C., last week, Steinmeier publicly hit back against a group of Republican senators who had written an unprecedented and controversial open letter to Iran’s leaders. Their message cautioned that any final nuclear deal agreed to by the EU3+3 (France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Russia, China, and the United States) could essentially be undone by the US Congress. Steinmeier correctly saw this letter for what it was: a direct and partisan attack on the US President, calculated to sabotage a multilateral diplomatic effort with Iran.
Steinmeier’s comments highlight Iran’s concerns as to whether the US can deliver on its promises.
Steinmeier warned that the letter placed Iran in a “position to turn to [the West] and ask ‘Are you credible?’” His comments highlight Iran’s concerns as to whether the US can deliver on its promises, and also point to Europe’s worries about US credibility and about the extent to which Congress can impede European foreign policy. Although Europe wants to maintain a unified stance on Iran, within the EU, there is a growing consensus that Congress must not unilaterally and unreasonably undercut international diplomacy. Any efforts that have this effect set a dangerous precedent that is likely to weaken future transatlantic cooperation on sanctions.
Meanwhile, the EU’s High Representative has signalled that both she and Europe want to be more active on the Iran file. Mogherini made an important gesture in this regard by inviting Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to Brussels for a special Iran session after yesterday’s foreign affairs committee meeting. Although the talks focused on the nuclear issue, this meeting in the EU’s capital reinforced Mogherini’s recent statement that Iran must be more visibly involved in Europe’s comprehensive strategy for confronting the conflicts in the Middle East.
Mogherini is unlikely to be able to replicate the role of her predecessor Catherine Ashton on the nuclear file. Given the extent of bilateral contact between Iran and the US today this position has become less of a necessity. But Mogherini has the political space and resources to take on the crucial, but so far vacant, leadership role towards a more holistic European foreign policy on Iran beyond the nuclear issue.
Mogherini has the political space and resources to take on the crucial leadership role towards a more holistic European foreign policy on Iran beyond the nuclear issue.
If the political contours of a deal can be sketched out in March, the next few months will be spent pinning down the technicalities required to translate intent into action. In this scenario, Europe should be active in protecting the deal all the way to completion. This is crucial in light of the recent bill proposed by Senator Bob Corker which shifts the goalposts for removing sanctions on Iran and proposes holding a vote on the terms of a final deal agreed to by the EU3+3. The passage of such bill is certain to derail the diplomatic track with Iran. Once an agreement is signed, Europe will have the political capacity and expertise to facilitate the implementation phases and to ensure that both sides fulfil their obligations.
If a framework agreement is unattainable, negotiators will likely return to their capitals to deliberate on whether and in what format the talks should continue. During the pause, Europe can utilise its ties in both Washington and Tehran to prevent a breakdown in diplomacy. Europe has to be clear that if the US Congress should take steps to sanction Iran during this deliberation period, the unity of the EU3+3 could be irreparably damaged and the sanctions framework on Iran could unravel. At the same time, Europe should maintain constant communication with Tehran and advocate for continued good faith and enforcement of the interim nuclear deal in hope that negotiators can resume the talks with more creative solutions or in an altered format.
Europe has to be clear that if the US Congress should take steps to sanction Iran during this deliberation period, the unity of the EU3+3 could be irreparably damaged and the sanctions framework on Iran could unravel.
Any visible European role with Iran in the coming months is likely to be led by Germany and the EU High Representative. The UK faces general elections in May, so any meaningful movement on Iran from London will be put on hold until the next government outlines its foreign policy objectives and priorities – which are likely to be dominated by the question of EU membership. Meanwhile, Paris has sustained its traditionally sceptical stance on Tehran, despite the softening of relations between Iran and other EU member states. France has also drawn closer to Saudi Arabia and is highly unlikely to push for détente with Iran.
The overarching question facing Europe is whether and to what extent it should engage with Iran beyond the eventual outcome of these nuclear negotiations. Paradoxically, while it is much easier for Europe to expand relations with Tehran, the US administration has quietly led the effort both on the nuclear and regional issues, most recently evidenced in Iraq. Europe should reassess its engagement with Iran in view of the priority and resources accorded by Europeans to regional crises after the rise of the Islamic State and the danger thereby posed to European security at home. Once policymakers are able to step out of the nuclear-centric vision of Iran, Europe, like the US, might see the benefits of coordinating with Tehran on at least some key regional files.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.