by Tomas Valasek
When the EU's first 'foreign minister', Cathy Ashton, starts work on December 1st, she will find Iran on top of her 'to do' pile. Earlier this week, Tehran turned down a proposal from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that would have seen a large part of the country's stock of uranium moved out of the country for further enrichment. Barring a last-minute change of heart in Tehran, the US, UK, France and Germany will soon move to tighten UN sanctions on Iran. This could set the scene for a confrontation with Russia and China, which are unconvinced that tough sanctions would work.
It will fall to Ashton to try to get Iran to reconsider. The country's government has not rejected the IAEA proposals outright; it has offered a counter-proposal, which US and European officials deem unacceptable. The Iranians may simply be buying time but there is a small hope that they are open to compromise. Before the UN Security Council imposes further sanctions, the EU needs to be absolutely sure that Iran does not want a deal.
The trouble is that the chances of a negotiating breakthrough with Iran, never high, have diminished since the fraudulent elections in Iran in June 2009 and their bloody aftermath. For the past five months, the country has been mired in twin crises: one within the regime (a band of clerics versus the former Revolutionary Guard commanders grouped around President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) and another one between the regime and the people. The government appears to have become dysfunctional. Tehran wavered for weeks over the recent Western proposals before rejecting them. It is not obvious that in a country as unstable as Iran is today, any centre of power has the courage to push for a compromise with the West (though some Iran watchers have warned that Tehran could be faking indecision while it buys time to develop further its nuclear programme).
It had been hoped that Barack Obama's entry into the nuclear talks would strengthen the EU's negotiating hand. In the past Iran had made clear to EU diplomats that it would not accept any agreement that did not involve the US. But Obama's charm offensive has had a limited effect. True, it “empowered advocates of engagement inside Iran and transferred the onus of co-operation from the US to Iran”, one Iran expert told a recent gathering of foreign policy thinkers and officials convened by the CER and other think-tanks in Stockholm. Obama's efforts have also made it more likely that Russia will support sanctions. But even after the US had joined the Iran talks and Obama had offered “dialogue without preconditions”, Tehran decided to reject the recent IAEA package.
High Representative Ashton and other western diplomats have few effective tools left to pressure Iran into changing its position, so the world's attention is shifting towards negotiating a new sanctions regime. The EU used to be divided on further sanctions, with France and the UK strongly in favour and Germany more sceptical. But Chancellor Angela Merkel's recent tough language on Iran (in a speech to a joint session of the US Congress) suggests that the new centre right-liberal coalition views sanctions more favourably (this was confirmed by senior German diplomats at the Stockholm event).
The key critics of tighter sanctions are Russia and China, whose top officials have argued on many occasions not only that sanctions would fail to stop Iran's nuclear programme, but also that they would boost the position of radicals within the country. They are right that sanctions are a very blunt instrument. Tougher sanctions almost certainly would strengthen the Revolutionary Guards' stranglehold on the economy and thus, paradoxically, empower the most authoritarian of Iranian political forces and set back the cause of Iran's liberalisation. Sanctions could also prompt Iran to kick out the IAEA inspectors who monitor Iran's nuclear facilities; this would leave the world blind to Iranian nuclear intentions.
But the case for sanctions, on balance, seems somewhat stronger. They discourage other states in the region from following Iran down the nuclear path, and they give the US and - crucially - Israel an alternative to the use of force. Existing sanctions have worked to the extent that they have deprived Iran of some needed technology; the centrifuges used to enrich uranium are said to be crashing frequently. And contrary to what Russia and China say, precedents suggest that sanctions can, under the right circumstances, bring weapons programmes to halt. As one US participant at the Stockholm meeting pointed out, “sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s and early 2000s worked so well that they made the invasion of that country completely unnecessary”. It transpired after the war that Iraq had given up its nuclear and biological programmes years before the US invasion, in large part because it could not obtain the necessary technology.
The two European members of the UN Security Council, France and the UK, along with Germany and the US, will lead negotiations at the UN on further sanctions. But Ashton will still have an important role to play. Sanctions are not meant to replace talks but to complement them; the idea is to inflict hurt on Iran's economy and political classes in order to get the government to accept nuclear proposals from the IAEA. So Cathy Ashton, like Javier Solana before her, will be expected to keep up talks with Iran while the UN debates sanctions, and after the UNSC agrees a new regime. The UNSC is likely to do so: President Dmitri Medvedev has hinted that Russia will swallow somewhat tougher sanctions, while China rarely vetoes UNSC resolutions alone (unless they concern Tibet or Taiwan).
But one wonders if this is the EU's last hooray on Iran. If the combination of sanctions and talks fail, the remaining options would seem to leave little room for EU diplomacy. If Israel strikes Iran's nuclear facilities, Tehran will certainly call off the EU-led talks. The other choice before the world is to start preparing for a nuclear Iran. A strategy of containment would require western governments to focus on making Iran's neighbours feel secure, so as to discourage them from building nuclear weapons themselves. But this will almost certainly be a job mainly for the US, rather than the EU. So while Baroness Ashton will spend a lot of time on Iran at the beginning of her term, the EU may gradually lose its leading role.
Tomas Valasek is director of foreign policy and defence at the Centre for European Reform.
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