The establishment of a stable and viable EU foreign policy has always been a desideratum amongst its member states. In spite of the repeated efforts from the EU administration to establish a coherent EU profile on various aspects of political, economic and social areas of its member states, foreign policy remains the weakest area in this EU integration process. In the case of the Iranian nuclear programme the EU inability to address and handle this issue constructively and effectively has been more than obvious.
Throughout its short history the EU has failed to establish a common foreign policy approach on various international issues. Hence the impact of the EU foreign policy has been limited, let alone that it has failed to shape world developments. These results from the fact that each EU member state, especially those with major economies, prefer to retain, develop and focus on their own state policy, neglecting thus an effort to formulate a common EU approach on foreign issues. Hence the EU foreign policy so far has been confined to setting out official recommendations and issuing declarations on common positions. In fact the EU has been used to play a secondary role in international politics, failing to prevent international crises and usually addressing them inadequately after their eruption, e.g. the Yugoslavian crisis, the Iraq wars and so on. Since December 1, 2009 the enforcement of the Lisbon treaty resulted in the creation of the post of the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, an ‘EU foreign minister.’ The main task of the British Baroness Kathryn Ashton who was elected in this post is to carry out policies defined by the EU member states, representing the EU in international organizations and thus ensuring the EU credibility and continuity. This post of the Lisbon Treaty actually replaced the previous post of the High Commissioner for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy which was held since 1999 by Javier Solana. During his ten years in office, in comparative terms Solana managed to improve the image of the EU foreign policy abroad by being quite energetic and efficient.
Given the aforementioned poor legacy and performance of the EU foreign policy, Ashton has undertaken to carry out a herculean task, i.e. to formulate and put in practice foreign policy methods and principles for the first time. It seems that the severe inner antagonism of the EU member states has prevented her so far from unfolding and materializing the main assets of her plans on various issues, attracting the EU attention and demanding an EU constructive and effective approach. Thus the Iranian nuclear issue is one of them not only for Brussels but also for Washington.
The Iranian nuclear programme has been a serious issue for the US and EU interests in the Middle East. The programme became known worldwide in the last eight years. Yet the Iranians have been preoccupied with the development of their nuclear programme since 1974. These efforts were disrupted during the Iran-Iraq war and were re-initiated in the 1990’s. The US and the EU paid special attention to the considerable Iranian efforts to acquire nuclear technology in the last decade. A bitter dispute has emerged between the EU and Iran on this issue resulting from a single detail: the tendency of the USA and the EU to monitor the Iranian nuclear programme based on the Non Proliferation Treaty principles, the unwillingness of Tehran to accept such a monitoring, claiming its legitimate right to develop its nuclear programme as a sovereign state in accordance with the NPT regulations. Given the existing major gap between the NPT principles and regulations, the EU worries that an uncontrolled and militarily nuclear Iran will alter the current status quo in the Middle East. Iranian leaders claim that nuclear weapons are prohibited by Islam. The Iranian denial has prompted the EU to take unilateral financial measures and in accordance with the United Nations Security Council decisions against Tehran. In spite of these sanctions Iran remains steadfast in its nuclear aspirations.
Throughout this crisis a special type of diplomacy was developed spearheaded by Javier Solana, the High Commissioner for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. In the last decade Solana was successful in unfolding the significance of diplomacy in this dispute. Holding various meeting on European or Iranian soil, Solana contributed to the formation of a regular cycle of meetings between him, the Iranian nuclear representative and the IAEA. Thus Solana formed a channel of communication between Brussels and Tehran, hoping to convince the Iranian side and deter it from going further with its nuclear programme. The Iranians on their side have been entirely positive toward the prospect of diplomatic talks as long as these talks are held in a spirit of mutual respect.
Keeping Iran on the negotiating table has not brought anything essential to the EU endeavours. Yet the same is the case about the economic sanctions against Iran. Tehran continues undeterred its nuclear programme and so far the Iranian success has resulted from the broader geopolitical status quo and its bold policy in the Middle East. Iran has acquired a major tactical advantage and influence in various areas of the Middle East. This factor along with the support it receives from Russia and China, have given Tehran the green light to go ahead and counterbalance the repercussions of the EU and the US sanctions.
No doubt Brussels is perplexed with the dead-end of the EU endeavours regarding Iran. Tehran retains its tactical advantage, defying the US and EU demands for a thorough inspection of its nuclear programme. In its nuclear policy vis-à-vis the EU Iran draws its strength from its tactical advances in the political landscape of the Middle East. The EU and the US have not been in position to force Iran to give in to their demands and thus they have reached a deadlock regarding the diplomatic approach of this problem. The EU tries to curb the Iranian defiance by imposing sanctions. Apparently there is a gap between the two sides and a lack of rapprochement.
So far the EU has not adopted this type of dialogue in its communiqué with Tehran. Diplomacy through dialogue in the past year has ceased to play any substantial role. As long as there is a positive sign in site, Brussels adopts dialogue for a short time in order to show to Tehran that it needs to accept the EU arguments. The EU seems to deem dialogue not useful in this process contrary to the Iranians who have always sought dialogue on a mutual basis regardless of the outcome of this dialogue. When Tehran does not agree, then Brussels prefers not to indulge in dialogue because ‘there is no reason for it’. Yet there is always a reason to be in negotiations with a competitor in politics. The EU views dialogue as a time-consuming trick of Tehran to buy time regarding its nuclear programme. Even if this is the case, the imposition of sanctions actually neutralizes the efforts of Tehran to buy time.
Negotiations generally are of substantial significance in international politics. Regardless of the outcome, dialogue means preserving a channel of communication with the other side. If the other side has the tactical advance, then dialogue becomes more important because it affects the psychology of the parties involved in the dispute, creating bridges with constructive and ever lasting duration and impact. The same is the case in the proposal of the Iraq Study Group Report about the US policy in Iraq and the Middle East. Lee Hamilton and James Baker have been ardent supporters of the US engaging Iran in negotiations.
Ashton has been only for six months in office and this period could be seen as transitional for her in her new post. Keeping sanctions against Iran is an EU option which needs to be combined with negotiations in order to ensure more options on the table for the EU. It is better to keep the channels of communication open than reaching a deadlock without being in touch with the other side.
So far Ashton has not set a systematic framework for negotiations with Iran. On 11 May the Iranians accepted Ashton’s invitation for nuclear talks setting the locations of the meetings in Turkey. This has not materialized so far. On June 14, a day after the announcement of the new UNSC sanctions against Iran, Ashton’s invitation to the Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Saeed Jalili to visit Brussels on June 17 ahead of the EU meeting for sanctioning Iran was not the best occasion to engage Iran in negotiations, especially after a three months silence without any dialogue between the two sides. It was plausible that Tehran would not respond positively to this call for negotiations. Ashton must invite the other side in dialogue at a better timing based on mutual respect and not in order to remind Iran the newly imposed sanctions.
Hence it is proposed in this note that Baroness Ashton must prepare a new initiative for the case of Iran. This initiative will involve a negotiations scheme with Iran on its nuclear programme and other issues of mutual interest. Given the freshly imposed sanctions the current occasion for dialogue is not the best one, the EU High Representative must highlight issues that will enable Iran come to the table, such as the case of Afghanistan and drugs policy. In these issues Iran and the EU have common views and such a discussion will enable both sides to revive a stable and durable dialogue process on the hot issues of the Iran nuclear programme, human rights and the like. Either to buy time or not, Tehran is ready to come to the table and discuss on the principle of mutual respect. Ashton can display reciprocity and diplomatic resourcefulness in this critical dispute between EU and Iran. Constructive engagement through dialogue with Iran will enable Brussels to be in touch with Tehran at a time that Iran remains strongly defiant regarding its nuclear programme. No doubt Baroness Ashton’s role in this process will be of critical importance.