The Case of Iran Teaches the EU a Lesson in Global Leadership

Cornelius Adebahr

Dr. Cornelius Adebahr was a Visiting Fellow at AICGS from October to December 2013. During his fellowship, Dr. Adebahr analyzed the transatlantic partners‘ current approach toward Iran and the country’s disputed nuclear program. Following a two-year stay in Tehran, he assessed the latest openings made by Iran’s newly elected president, Ayatollah Rouhani. In addition, he looked at ways how the United States—particularly Congress—could support a potential agreement that would see a gradual phase out of the current international sanctions. Ultimately, a compromise would have to see both sides giving up some of their more extreme demands in order to settle for the common ground around their respective core interests.

Dr. Adebahr is a political scientist and entrepreneur; he lives in Washington, DC, and Berlin, Germany. Since the end of 2000, he has been the owner of Wirtschaft am Wasserturm, a political consultancy firm. Among his clients are major company-affiliated foundations as well as not-for-profit associations and European institutions. In addition, Cornelius Adebahr has been affiliated with the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) since January 2006, and is currently an Associate Fellow. He is also a columnist with the Global Policy Journal published by the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

As a fellow of the Stiftung Neue Verantwortung from 2009 to 2011, Dr. Adebahr headed two research teams on “geopolitics and the financial crisis” and “raw materials strategy.” He has taught at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy at Erfurt University and the Faculty for World Studies of Tehran University. Furthermore, from 2003 to 2011, he was a member of Team Europe, an experts’ network of the European Commission.

Cornelius Adebahr was a scholar of the European Foreign and Security Policy Studies Program of the Volkswagen Foundation, Compagnia di San Paolo, and Riksbankens Jubileumsfond as well as of the Postgraduate Program in International Affairs by the Robert Bosch Foundation and the German National Merit Foundation. He studied International Relations, Philosophy, Public Law, and International Economics in Tübingen and Paris and earned his PhD at the Free University Berlin.

After a decade of nuclear talks, a deal between Iran and the international community may finally be in sight. However, what if the compromise found at the negotiation table falls through domestically on either the Iranian or the American side? In the end, the EU will have to pick up the tab and finally punch its weight. This essay appears also at the Global Policy Journal and is reprinted with the author’s permission.

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It may be just a coincidence: Exactly ten years before the current round of talks in Geneva, the then foreign ministers of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom (EU-3) had the first breakthrough in their talks with the Iranian government. With the Tehran Declaration of 21 October 2003, Iran agreed to sign and implement the Additional Protocol of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and to voluntarily suspend all uranium enrichment activities. In return, the EU-3 recognized the country’s right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy in accordance with the NPT and promised cooperation on nuclear energy once “satisfactory assurances” about Iran’s nuclear program had alleviated international concerns. At least two individuals will certainly take note of the “anniversary”: Hassan Rouhani, then the leader of the Iranian delegation and now the country’s freshly elected president, and Mohammed Zarif, the country’s foreign minister who went on to become the Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations (UN).

The EU-3 has morphed into the P5+1 with China, Russia, and the United States now also at the table, notably represented by the EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton. Their discussions with the new Iranian leadership in Geneva on October 15 and 16 were “substantive and forward-looking,” according to a joint declaration—the latter being in itself a first. During the meeting, the contours of a possible agreement emerged: Iran would accept strict limits on its enrichment activities and implement the Additional Protocol. In return, the P5+1 would gradually lift sanctions—both those imposed by the UN and nationally—as well as recognize in principle Iran’s right to enrichment. If this sounds somewhat familiar, then it is no wonder. The essence of the deal—intrusive inspections in exchange for international recognition—has been out there for ten years. However, it has taken a decade of nuclear advances, checked by increased sanctions, for all concerned parties to understand each other’s seriousness and to become ready for a compromise.

Securing a deal at the negotiation table is only half the battle. It is entirely possible that whatever agreement comes about would eventually unravel domestically in one of the countries. This could be Iran, of course, but it could just as well be the United States on behalf of the P5+1—the other five parties have either less critical domestic constituencies, or the power to disregard them.

Given Iran’s long-standing enmity toward the United States―so much so that anti-Americanism has become a state ideology—it is doubtful whether the ruling elites from hardline lawmakers to conservative clerics to the Revolutionary Guard would accept a normalization of relations with the “Great Satan.” The discussion in Tehran about whether to change views on the United States has set in right after the historic telephone call between Presidents Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani at the end of September. The new mood—if there is one—will be tested already on November 4, the anniversary of the 1979 seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran. The usually chanted slogan, “Death to America,” would certainly ring stridently in the ears of the nuclear negotiators scheduled to meet the next day in Geneva for another round of talks. So, moderation on this side would not only signal the new Iranian government’s good will, but also provide a measure of how much they can impose a new course domestically.

On the other hand, the tricky question is whether the United States is ready to settle for a compromise. Here too, the debate has centered for more than three decades on Iran as an enemy―though one among many. Following Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rhetoric, a number of hardliners have already started to bang the war drum again, calling sanctions a failure and the Iranian government’s opening a “smokescreen.” At the same time, Congress has been preparing new sanctions bills, which have given the Obama administration a hard time in asking for them to be frozen for the duration of negotiations.

While it is obvious that the U.S. government will work closely with Congress throughout the negotiations, this by no means guarantees that America will be in the position to swiftly live up to its side of the deal once it is made. This was obvious even before the recent government shutdown had exposed irrational forces in American politics. And, just like this stalemate had helped stop the sanctions bill from being debated, the next deadlock in this saga, expected for early 2014, could delay any positive measure to be passed by Congress should negotiations come to a close within the envisaged short period of around three months.

In the end, a—temporary—defeat of any deal on either the American or Iranian side would put the European Union in the position to lead again on this dossier. It has done so reluctantly ever since 2002, when the United States was not willing to even talk to Iran. In this scenario, it would have to save the achievements of a decade of diplomacy by stepping in boldly: Either to make up for measures the United States cannot take, or to support a well-meaning Iranian government in the face of domestic resistance.

The first case, an American failure to deliver, is the negotiators’ nightmare even though it may be easier for the EU to handle. It is a nightmare because it may “prove” the West’s ill will to a skeptical Iranian audience—assuming that the United States never really intended to reciprocate on an Iranian opening. This would likely be the end of any negotiations for a long while. To prevent this deterioration and to provide Iran with some rewards for its concessions, the EU could swiftly remove those European sanctions that really bite, including the oil embargo and the ban on financial transactions. In addition, the EU could start a process of politically recognizing the Islamic Republic, including opening an EU delegation in Tehranthe UK has already embarked on talks to re-establish formal diplomatic relations. To what extent it could also lean on its American friends to overcome any domestic blockade is much more uncertain.

The second case, an Iranian inability to live up to its side of the agreement, is also fraught with uncertainties. First of all, it would be hard to assess—let alone “prove”— that the government was indeed negotiating with good faith, but then it came under too much pressure internally. While a Western audience would most likely understand Congress’ intransigence as parochial but authentic and not part of a double-faced strategy, an inherent wariness of “the mullah regime” would make any further offers a hard sell—even if they were intended to strengthen an honestly negotiating government. Again, some political symbolism might be helpful like strengthening cultural exchanges or, again, setting up an EU delegation to Iran in order to keep communication channels open and better understand the other side. The EU could also tie rewards for Iran to cooperation in fields other than the nuclear issue—i.e., to resolving the Syrian crisis or improving the human rights situation at home.

The crucial thing is that policymakers both in Europe and the United States would have to be ready to adapt a different mindset: From one bent on increasing sanctions in order to get Iran to the negotiating table to one focused on carefully targeting sanctions relief so that the government has some progress to show to its domestic constituencies in order to be able to implement a potential agreement.

Either way, as important as getting a deal is for all parties involved, will be the question of whether and how an agreement can be implemented. The EU has been driving and formally leading this process for much of the past ten years. By actually owning it throughout its tricky implementation, it can show that it can ultimately lead at the global level.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.