By Iran Review
By Ramin Nadimi*
Interview with Behzad Ahmadi, Senior expert on Europe
Q: It appears from diplomatic activities between Europe and the United States that the French president is planning a diplomatic initiative to keep the nuclear deal with Iran, which is known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In doing this, he wants to convince Iran to accept limitations to its missile program and what they describe as Iran’s regional activities, so that, the US President Donald Trump will be encouraged not to leave the JCPOA. Do you believe that Iran must welcome such negotiations, and if yes, will Tehran set an agenda or conditions for the French side?
A: Since [Donald] Trump was elected [US] president, European countries have been following two clear approaches vis-à-vis the JCPOA. It seems that up to January 2018, Europeans were trying to show Trump their unconditional compliance with the JCPOA. To do this, Europeans increased their diplomatic activities, issued categorical statements in support of the JCPOA, and when European officials met with their Iranian counterparts, they gave guarantees about their commitment to the JCPOA. However, after Trump issued a statement and gave European countries until the middle of May to amend the nuclear deal with Iran, European countries have brought up new demands with regard to Iran’s missile program and the country’s regional influence. Trump has emphasized four points: 1. inclusion of a sunset clause in the JCPOA, which means that Iran would not be able to take advantage of the so-called “sunset of the JCPOA” to resume its nuclear program [when the deal expires] in 2025. Of course, due to Iran’s membership at the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Trump’s claim lacks legal grounds. Trump has also put forth the possibility of “sanctions snapping back” in response to the “sunset of the JCPOA,” which means that if Iran continues its nuclear program after the end of the JCPOA, sanctions against the country will be automatically resumed; 2 and 3. Trump claims that Iran’s missile program and regional influence are both related to the nuclear deal and must be negotiated as a single package; and 4. [Trump has highlighted] the issue of snap inspections according to which Iran’s military facilities should be inspected anytime they deem necessary. Of course, Trump has also brought up other issues such as Iran’s cyber activities, the activities of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) and the Lebanese Hezbollah movement, shipping, and the issue of human rights. European countries, however, have so far avoided focusing on them and have mostly focused on numbers 2&3 above.
Europeans are not basically against discussion of the issue of the “sunset of the JCPOA,” but they believe that this is not a good time to bring it up and maintain that this issue must be discussed in 2023 or 2024, because premature discussion of this issue will make it difficult to reach an agreement with Iran. As for Iran’s missile program and regional influence, they have more clear-cut plans. For example, Germany has been seeking imposition of some sanctions on Iran over those issues. French President Emmanuel Macron has also clearly announced that if Iran does not take any measures in this regard, it will face punishments. They started their work on Iran’s regional influence and missile program through a draft resolution on the situation in Yemen and against Iran, which was drawn up through collaboration of the UK, France and the United States. However, the resolution was vetoed at the United Nations Security Council by Russia after which Germany, France, Britain and the United States adopted a joint statement on that issue. The statement was meant to send a powerful political message and should not be taken lightly at all.
Europeans have been trying to compartmentalize their measures with regard to Iran. For example, sanctions imposed and other measure taken by the European Union over the issue of human rights in Iran are still in place, but they have not harmed the JCPOA in any way. Now, they are planning to apply the same mechanism to Iran’s missile program and its regional influence. In my opinion, before this, the issue of Iran’s regional influence was an ambiguous term for Europeans and they were not able to find any clear problem with this influence, which would be important to them. However, they have managed lately to add a tangible dimension to this issue, including by stressing the pressure that Iran is allegedly putting on Saudi Arabia in Yemen or Iran’s pressure on Israel through its presence in Syria. Europeans believe that they have solutions for these two problems and can negotiate with Iran to solve them. As for the second part of your question, there is no doubt that Iran must certainly engage in talks and negotiations over many of these issues. Basically speaking, negotiation is a very good tool and when it comes to international law and political realism, Iran has certain advantages and rights of which it can take advantage in any negotiations. From my viewpoint, conditions for negotiation can differ on the basis of Iran’s capabilities and potentialities, especially at regional level.
Q: In your remarks, you pointed out that countering what they describe as Iran’s regional influence has already started. The resolution you mentioned about Yemen was vetoed by Russia. On the opposite, the US representative announced that her country and its allies would continue their measures to counter Iran. To what extent, do you believe that measures taken by the United States in this regard can affect negotiations between Iran and Europe?
A: They will undoubtedly have an effect. I believe that the Trump’s administration, in particular, and the United States, in general, are opposed to the nature of the Islamic Republic establishment and its behavior. It seems that unlike the era of former US president, Barack Obama, when the US put the highest emphasis on mounting pressure on Iran and going on with negotiations at the same time, the administration of Trump only believes in pressure. Developments in Yemen and/or the possible use of missiles by the Lebanese Hezbollah movement against the Israel have prompted Americans to highlight Iran’s missile program, because missiles can change the strategic balance of power in Iran’s favor. The Trump’s administration is going the same way with regard to Iran’s regional influence. By highlighting Iran’s presence in Syria and the possibility of direct military confrontation with the Israel, they are trying to depict Iran as an abnormal actor in the international arena. This issue can pave the way for securitization of differences with Iran once again. Americans, on the other hand, are trying to convince Europeans that Iran is an abnormal actor and they must consider Tehran as a threat. However, despite pressures exerted by the United States and creation of destructive psychological conditions, which have caused major global banks and international companies to have doubts about trade with Iran, Europe is experiencing totally different conditions than the United States. Iran can be considered as a near neighbor of Europe and this is why the JCPOA is essentially important to Europeans, because the most important outcome of it for Europeans has been security. They have been able through this agreement to overcome one of the most important issues, which is source of threat and concern for them, and are not willing to lose this agreement. Europe is neighboring the Middle East region and is still affected by such issues and calamities as continuation of the refugee crisis and instability in the region. The United States, on the other hand, is not affected by regional conflicts in the Middle East as Europe is. Therefore, the importance that the European Union and European actors at large attach to the JCPOA is totally different from Americans.
Another important issue is that we must see in what context Europe wants to enter into negotiations with Iran and influence it. In my opinion and in view of conditions across Europe, European countries are currently in no position to mount pressure on Iran. Therefore, Iran will by no means lose the upper hand in these negotiations. The most important message that was sent out by Munich Security Conference 2018 was not that Iran is a security matter, but that Europe is grappling with security issues; issues like Russia and the surge of China. The European security order is an important issue, whose turning point is the conflict in Ukraine for which European countries have not been able to find a suitable solution yet. It is not clear yet whether this security order will be NATO-based or Russia-based. In addition, the European Union is currently facing a flurry of challenges the most important of which include problems regarding European cooperation; Brexit and reduced security potential of Europe due to Britain’s exit from the European Union; continuation of the eurozone crisis, which has been simply managed so far and European countries have not been able to bring it under total control; the rise of rightist and leftist popular parties and the fall of traditional political parties the best example of which is Germany’s inability to form a coalition government after the lapse of five months from general elections; and vulnerability of European values as a result of the refugee crisis.
In addition, Iran must know that when negotiating with Europe, we will not be talking to a solid body of countries. We are facing different voices in Europe and the tone used by Italy, Spain or Nordic countries with Iran will be very different from the tone used by France, Britain and Germany. In my opinion, all these issues are good reason to believe that the time is now ripe for Iran’s negotiations with the European Union.
At international level, it must be noted that the “phenomenon of Trumpism” has caused many problems for Europe. This phenomenon has had three major effects. Firstly, the slogan of “America First,” has led to a foreign exchange trade war, a normative war and an ontological challenge within NATO. The second effect has been weakening of the international liberal system as a result of the measures taken by the Trump’s administration. In other words, who is supposed to police the West-based and liberal system of the world now? Thirdly, the process of globalization is not faring as it should and a host of other issues, including the gradual fall of the United States, weakness of international treaties, and withdrawal of Washington from Paris Agreement on climate change can be added to the above problems. Under these conditions, Europeans will not be happy if they have to deal with another issue like the issue of a “nuclear Iran,” which can further complicate the aforesaid problems.
Q: With these facts in mind, if these negotiations start, how the French can possibly get Iran’s cooperation and meet the main considerations of our country?
A: I believe that Iran and Europe equally need each other. Apart from Americans, who feel no special threat from the Middle East, developments in this region have a “domino effect” and can, therefore, affect Caucasus, the Levant, North Africa, even Russia’s relations with Europe, and security in the Indian Subcontinent. Therefore, there is some sort of geopolitical continuity between security in West Asia, the Middle East and Europe. This is an important reality that none of the two Iranian and European sides must forget. At the top of these issues is the issue of stability. Since security is very shaky in this region, the best development related to negotiations could be use of mechanisms, which would be able to restore stability to the region. I believe that if Europe tries to separate the case of Iran from these issues and instead of attending to these issues as a whole, put the highest emphasis on such issues as “Iran’s missile program,” or the issue of Iran’s regional influence, it will get nowhere.
In my opinion, the best approach in this regard is that a country like France can play a positive role due to the position and size of its economy, its understanding of the region, and the more balanced relations that it has with Iran compared to other actors. Of course, I personally believe that the position of the European Union under the leadership of the EU’s foreign policy chief, Ms. [Federica] Mogherini, can be more important for us in this regard and perhaps, Iran will be more welcoming toward this issue. The behavior or the process that Ms. Mogherini has so far stuck to as the leader of the European Union’s foreign policy is based on mutual respect and consideration for both sides’ interests. Within this framework, if the French enter into interaction with Iran on this basis and recognize Iran’s interests, they can greatly help start a dialogue. This means that if they do not see and introduce Iran as a special case, well naturally there will be ground for more talks. I believe that in the first place and with regard to regional issues, the two sides can start negotiations on the basis of proposals, which have been offered by Iran during recent years, the likes of which were also offered by the Qatari Emir during this year’s Munich Security Conference. Later on, they can focus on “creating an atmosphere of dialogue in the form of a security forum for the Persian Gulf region” in which Iran would be a member and whose members would be able to discuss and share their concerns. It is possible as a first step to discuss such practical issues as security of energy and commodity transit, fighting environmental pollutions, formulation of cooperation protocols, as well as security and military surveillance in order to prevent any possible confrontation. Europe, especially France, can play a positive role in creating such a mechanism and Iran is also ready to cooperate with this process. In this state, the issue of Iran’s regional influence will be discussed within a bigger system and in relation with the role played by other actors and, therefore, it can help creation of a security complex in which Iran’s legitimate interests will be met and concerns of other actors will be also addressed.
When it comes to Iran’s missile program, Europeans put the main emphasis on two points: 1. range of missiles, and 2. missile production technology. It seems that Europeans have been recently paying more attention to the second point. Various solutions were offered by Iranian officials, including an announcement by the IRGC commander that Iran will not build a missile with a range of more than 2,000 kilometers. With regard to transfer of missile technology, the US led a campaign to show that an existing threat was the possibility of Iran providing this technology to such forces as Yemen’s Houthi fighters to be used against Saudi Arabia or Lebanon’s Hezbollah to be used against the Israel. With regard to the range of missiles, it seems that the main concern here is about security of the Israel. International arms control regimes can be used in negotiations to help resolve this issue, but the essence of arms control regimes is to build confidence. Therefore, instead of isolating Iran and setting conditions and limitations for Iran’s missiles, Europe can take the lead in introducing a regime to support nonproliferation of arms in the Middle East. By signing the JCPOA, Iran has conventionally accepted the nonproliferation, while the Israel has been always creating barriers in this regard by refraining from cooperation. Europe, including France, can propose creation of a nonproliferation regime for all regional actors while giving Iran necessary security guarantees. Ending arms sanctions on Iran and allowing it to achieve some sort of conventional military balance with Saudi Arabia and the Israel can help make such a regime successful. These are difficult decisions, which at any rate, must be made by Europeans. Otherwise, if they continue accusing Iran, depicting it as a threat, and mounting verbal attacks against it, the Islamic Republic will certainly refrain from taking part in any negotiations. The question is what could be the real quid pro quo for a country’s security?
An issue, which is related to Europe’s interests, is that instead of accusing Iran and mounting more pressure on it, which can disrupt the political structure of the JCPOA, they must give an objective guarantee to Iran and connect its economy to global economy as much as possible. Nobody will be ready in Iran to engage in any new negotiation in view of the past experience of the JCPOA and its violation by the United States. International relations are an arena for the use of power, not a legal arena, and the United States can shun its commitments without even needing any excuse to do this. Therefore, a regional security mechanism, which will have Iran as a member can be expected to provide Iran with necessary objective guarantees. I propose that Europe use its weight and try to pursue discussions about Iran’s regional influence and missile program within framework of a larger scale dialogue, which would include all actors, not simply Iran, in the Persian Gulf region. At the same time, it must put on its agenda further expansion of trade and economic relations with Iran. Otherwise, I believe that Iran will not give in to any pressure.
Q: The Israel is one side to this discussion. Iran can reach a conclusion with the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, because we have been neighbors for centuries and have many cultural, religious and historical commonalities. However, the Islamic Republic of Iran does not see any such common ground with the Israel. How this equation can be solved if the Israel constitutes one side of it? You know that Europeans and the United States take Zionists’ viewpoints into consideration.
A: It seems that all these developments are aimed at giving a turn to regional issues that would benefit the security of the Israel.This is where Europe appears to be vulnerable, because Europe’s capacity for acting in a mediatory role against the Israel is very limited. What was discussed in this interview is adoption of an interactive approach to Iran by Europe. However, this interactive approach is being rejected by the United States, followed by the Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Q: Can Russia’s role in this regard help make France’s plan successful? Will Russians be able to somehow modify opposition from the Israel?
A: Russians have shored up their position in the Middle East. The Middle East is considered as a valuable arena for Moscow. Russians have tried to appear as a full-fledged international actor in this region. They have also taken good advantage of the Middle East as leverage against European countries. In addition, Russia’s presence in the region has had economic benefits for this country. At the present time and unlike the United States, Russia has presented itself as a mediator, which can engage in dialogue with all involved parties. However, it must not be forgotten that if they show the necessary political will, Europeans will be also able to assume the role of a mediator.
Another important issue in the meantime is the fact that Europe stands out of the axis that determines the balance of power in the Middle East. Europeans must not presume that they have many tools at their disposal in order to influence Iran. At the present time, a game of balance of power is underway in the Middle East at the high levels of which are the United States and Russia, and at the lower levels, there are Iran, the Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. However, Europe plays an insignificant role in this regard. Europeans must note that the realities on the ground have changed. At the present time, Syria peace talks are not handled in Geneva, but meetings in Sochi and Astana are of higher importance. I want to say that Europe can take advantage of the opportunity and avoid harming the political structure of the JCPOA by adopting such restrictive measures as imposing sanctions on Iran over its missile program and regional influence.
Q: Let’s get back to the JCPOA. Trump has shown that he is not logical in many decisions that he makes. So, if the White House’s decision to quit the JCPOA becomes final, can Iran’s cooperation with France cushion destructive impact of undoing the JCPOA by the United States?
A: I personally believe that Europeans, France in particular, want to play a bigger and more determining role in the Middle East. I also believe that following possible withdrawal of the United States from the JCPOA, nothing worth mentioning would remain of the nuclear agreement. Even if the scenario of “the JCPOA minus the US” enters into force, the nuclear deal will only be able to survive for a limited period of time in the absence of the United States. The Iranian officials have owned up to this reality. However, in order to prevent such a state of affairs, Europeans can increase their lobbying with the Democrat lawmakers at US Congress and try to make room for achieving Europe’s goals by getting them to pass more resilient laws. In the meantime, there is also another option in which Europe would launch a trade war with the United States over Iran sanctions just in the same way that it did in 1996 and under the former US president, Bill Clinton. In addition, European countries can start negotiations with China, Russia, South Korea and Japan in order to find ways to reduce the damage on Iran and encourage Tehran to continue to remain committed to the JCPOA.
However, in my opinion, such measures are largely impossible to be taken and even if they are taken, they will be short-lived. In other words, Europe’s ability to push ahead with such a scenario is limited. The final outcome of this situation will lead to a second scenario in which Europe will accept the JCPOA in a de facto manner, but will be unable to find a solution for problems that would emanate from US quitting the deal and will submit to the US pressures. This scenario can cost Europe very dearly. Let us not forget the reality that if the JCPOA collapses, a huge potential will be generated for destabilizing the international security, because in that case, international treaties will be undermined and one of the main obstacles to nuclear proliferation will be removed. Is Europe ready to lose its biggest diplomatic achievement? Is Europe ready to add another serious challenge to previous challenges that it is facing in such a precarious field? Iran does not need to quit the JCPOA and can continue to play its positive regional role by staying in this agreement and even make its biggest effect. However, if Iran reaches the conclusion that its interests are being lost, it will not hesitate to leave the JCPOA.
*Interviewer: Ramin Nadimi Security and Defense Analyst