The best outcome for E3+3 negotiations is a partial enrichment freeze. Short of that, more talks will at least avert military action.
The economic and political news out of Europe may be grim, but on the diplomatic front Europe is leading what may be the most consequential negotiations of 2012 – the so-called E3+3 talks with Iran. Those talks are being managed by the EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, and shepherded by the European External Action Service's trouble-shooter, Helga Schmid.
Accounts from all sides suggest that Ashton and Schmid are making rather a good fist of it – the Iranians are still at the table (with a third round of talks scheduled for Moscow in mid-June) – and that the countries participating have remained sufficiently united to avoid descending into mutual recriminations. No easy task given how high the stakes are, the history of failed talks, the tensions within participants and the curveballs that Israel, the US Congress and Iran itself have a habit of throwing.
That's all good and dandy, but the Europeans may soon have to make a decisive call on substance rather than management. What does Europe want out of these talks? At the Pollyanna-ish end of the spectrum would be a definitive, implementable and sustainable deal laying to rest nuclear suspicions towards Iran and opening a door to western-Iranian co-operation across a range of issues (think Afghanistan, Horn of Africa security, and possibly Syria and Iraq; but even Pollyanna might balk at co-operation on Israel/Palestine or democracy promotion). While the contours for such a deal exist (variations on Iran's right to enrich being recognised, being limited and being verified), the political realities in 2012 – notably in the US and Iran – decisively undermine this prospect.
The opposite end of that scale would see talks as intended to expose Iranian malfeasance, helping to maintain international commonality of purpose as sanctions are ratcheted up further. If the ultimate goal is regime change induced by economic strangulation or Iranian capitulation (as opposed to negotiated compromise), or even to provoke Iran as a justification for military intervention, then this makes sense. Yet it is hard to view this as being the desired European outcome.
Which brings us to what is desirable and achievable in 2012. The best, realistic prognosis for these talks is that they deliver a partial enrichment freeze in return for partial sanctions relief. Short of that, the goal is more talks – improving mutual understanding for when there is greater political room for compromise – in Iran, the US or both. Crucially, military action is averted.
Under this prolonged and constructive but indecisive talks scenario, Iran is dissuaded from making any dramatic surge in its nuclear programme (the international consensus anyway is that Iran has not made the decision to weaponise), while Israel is dissuaded from punching “Qom nuclear facility” into the TomToms on its fighter planes (as long as the E3+3 continue negotiations, Israel feels somewhat boxed-in).
In a sense, talks will have succeeded if they continue. However, either Iran or Israel might not play ball. Recent talks in Baghdad apparently came precariously close to collapse. Israel's prime minister has anyway heaped scorn on these negotiations and set his bar for progress unattainably high. Failed talks can be more dangerous than no talks at all.
Europe's position so far is to stick to its existing and planned additional sanctions. That is perhaps fine as an exercise in brinksmanship, but if a tangible Iranian offer encompassing a 20% enrichment freeze and enhanced International Atomic Energy Agency inspection is floated, then Europe will have to choose. Progress with Iran and deference to stated US positions may become incompatible.
In an election year and with Republican rivals accusing President Obama of being soft on Iran, US officials are in no position to ease their own sanctions regime. A calibrated European initiative to ease or delay its own sanctions may be key in facilitating real progress, or simply guaranteeing more talks. Europe would have to act on its own judgment – Obama's hands are tied. But the US could be expected to stay at the table, likewise Iran, the E3+3 (UK, US, China, France, Germany and Russia) remain united (that too is threatened) and the US and EU agree to disagree on the easing issue. Europe also needs a plan B, focused on its role and its leverage in keeping those Israeli fighter planes grounded.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.