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Dialogue with Iran: the EU way out of the impasse

01 July 2006

From the mid-1990s onwards, the EU followed a unique policy approach in order to engage the Islamic Republic of Iran. Recognising the country's geostrategic position and its importance as an energy supplier, EU countries embraced a policy of dialogue. As seen from an EU perspective, the critical and the comprehensive dialogues were less a success in terms of ushering in dramatic improvements than in terms of the way in which they led to a gradual shift in the behaviour of the Iranians. As seen from an Iranian perspective, the dialogue format was a means to engage with the Europeans on topics of mutual concern. At the same time, the Iranians welcomed the EU's choice of dialogue as a positive development, since in their historic experience Iranian relations with the West have been mostly one-sided exercises with the 'imperialists' imposing their will upon the 'oppressed' Iranian nation. In the end, the EU and Iran envisioned negotiating a generous Trade and Cooperation Agreement, which was directly linked to success in the political and the human rights dialogue.
During that period, the EU was criticised for engaging in dialogue with Iran. Many commentators overseas accused the EU of trading off human rights and democracy for the sake of economic interests. These critics generally overlook the fact that Iran is in the EU's vicinity, and may, after the possible accession of Turkey, even become a neighbour. They also tend to forget that the US policy of dual containment of Iraq and Iran was a disaster and that US-Iranian interaction was overshadowed by scandals.
The Iranians, however, changed the circumstances of negotiations with the EU when secret nuclear activities were disclosed in 2002. By autumn 2003 there was a tense standoff between Iran and the West. The EU prevented it from developing into a fully-fledged crisis by an initiative of the 'Big Three' (France, Germany and Great Britain) foreign ministers, supported and coordinated with Javier Solana. This initiative became known as the E3/EU format. A major step was achieved when in November 2004 the Iranians and the E3/EU signed the Paris Agreement and Iran suspended its nuclear activities. By then the EU was clearly linking future prospects for EU-Iranian relations to Iran's willingness to maintain the suspension. Then and now, only suspension was seen as the final proof of Iran's good intentions. Whereas the Iranians feared that continued suspension would result in them being forced to abandon their right to enrichment.
Throughout 2005 these differences became more and more marked. Ominously, Iran stressed the voluntary nature of the suspension on many occasions. Then in August 2005 Iran brusquely rejected an European offer and terminated the suspension. From then on the nuclear issue determined EU-Iranian relations whereas any other format of discussion lay dormant. Over autumn and winter 2005 the Iranian side aggravated the situation with the new president's remarks on Israel and the resumption of other nuclear activities. Finally, in January, Iran's nuclear dossier was reported to the UNSC. And, as a consequence, the E3/EU format changed to the E3+3 or UN Permanent 5+1 (Germany) format, which further involves EU member states in the international efforts to resolve the crisis.
According to most commentators, the EU's position became closer to that of the US. But in reality the EU's position has never changed. It remains firmly committed to the idea of a dialogue with Iran and to the principle that Iran has to stop enrichment activities in order to create confidence in its peaceful intentions. What have changed are the positions of Iran and the USA. The Iranians abandoned their constructive stance by rejecting the EU's August 2005 offer and resuming enrichment-related activities (and of course the brinkmanship of its president). And the US's position has changed from aggressive regime-change rhetoric to evaluating the possibility of direct talks with Iran.
This is encouraging, but one should not forget that 'grand bargains' between the US and Iran have been tried in previous times and have led nowhere. Besides, those groups in the USA who are in favour of regime change in Iran are far from being uninfluential. Hence the risk of military confrontation is not over yet. Needless to say, an Iranian suspension could instigate a new, positive dynamic. The EU has enabled the Iranians and the Americans to enter into direct talks. But the EU's responsibility does not end here; it must actively encourage both sides to engage in good faith in a real dialogue, in order to find a way out of the current impasse.