Posch: " Obama’s Iran Challenge: a last chance for engagement? "

Walter Posch writes in a guest op-ed for IC:

Iran is generally viewed as to be one of the biggest challenges for the incoming administration. And for good reasons! After all previous administrations got their fingers burnt either way, by reaching out or by putting pressure on Tehran. The question what to do next depends on how the endgame should look like, do the US and the Iranians want a basic understanding? Or does Washington prefer isolation of the Islamic Republic and does Tehran see more advantages in continuing using Anti-Americanism as the regime’s ideological raison d’être? There is some chance for optimism though because even the hawks in both Washington and Tehran seemingly shy away from open confrontation. And president Obama promised during his campaign to offering unconditional talks to the Iranian leadership causing even cooler heads to foster expectations of a rapprochement and even a grand bargain.

This said, the challenges ahead are no easy task to be dealt with as the ‘Iran issue’ consists of three main aspects, a) the nature of the Islamist regime, b) Iran’s role as a regional power and c) the nuclear issue. All these points are interrelated and interconnected and therefore cannot really be separated from another. And to make issues a bit more complicated there are fissures and differences in European and American approaches even if views on Iran largely coincide.
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For instance the Europeans were always more relaxed concerning the very ‘nature’ of the Islamist regime i.e. its Islamist ideology. This has historic reasons after all post-war Europe had to live side by side with an ideological regime hostile to democratic values for more than forty years. Hence the idea of coexistence has to have a certain appeal. Besides occasional outbursts against EU member states notwithstanding, there is no anti-Europeanism in Iran; at least nothing comparable to Iranian Anti-Americanism and Anti-Zionism. Therefore, once the Europeans concluded that the regime will not simply wither away, the EU focussed on conducting policies aiming at to rather changing the regime’s behaviour in matters of concern like Human Rights issues, regional security and support for international terrorism than on changing the regime’s very ‘nature’ or going for regime change.

The EU applied the same principle to Iran’s regional policy. Being fully aware of Iran’s importance the EU nevertheless did not get tired to address matters of concern to Tehran, especially with regards to Iran’s role as a spoiler in the Middle East Peace Process. This said the EU set on a critical (and later a comprehensive) dialogue with Iran of which regional security was part of. For the US, things were different because they almost physically were at loggerheads with the avowedly anti-American and Anti-Zionist regime in the Persian Gulf. Iran’s ultimate goal was and is to see the US leaving one day the Gulf which by default would make Iran the strongest power in the region whereas the US would prefer the Iranians to play no role at all in this crucial energy rich area.

The 2001 Afghanistan and the 2003 Iraq invasions entrenched the US even more in the region and brought both sides dangerously close to one another. Both in their own ways are now able to exploit the other’s vulnerabilities to a degree, that the current situation might be best described as strategic stalemate between the US and Iran. Ideally this stalemate could be over come by incremental, issue to issue cooperation in security related areas. However after six years in Iraq and some fruitless talk it is easy to assume that common interests between Iran and the US in security related fields (so they exist!) are not an argument compelling enough to serve as a base for commencing bilateral talks – let alone negotiations – in earnest.

This leaves us with the nuclear issue. In this case initial disagreement over how to proceed on the Iranian file between the EU and the US has been overcome during the Bush presidency – one just has to compare John Bolton’s lambasting against Iran in 2003 and Condoleezza Rice co-signing a polite letter on behalf of the International community to her Iranian counterpart Mottaki in 2008. Hence a new and stable international consensus involving the UNSC over Iran was reached. The so-called P5+1 format (E3/3+EU), which includes the High Representative for the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy in a key function. Up to until now, the format has followed an approach of offering economic and political incentives on behalf of the EU but with US backing and in case Iran stalls referring the nuclear file to the Security Council, as already happened, and going for economic sanctions.

And it is with sanctions where a potential disagreement between Europe and the US might occur. To begin with, unlike many in the Beltway’s policy community the Europeans do not see sanctions as a tool for regime change or aim at destroying the economic foundations of Iran’s secularist middle class. Rather they see sanctions as a tool to get the Iranians back at the negotiations table and therefore are eager to find a compromise between the Chinese-Russian and the American positions. Besides, with virtually no economic relations between the Islamic Republic and the US (at least no legal ones) it is easy for Washington to pressure for European sanctions. But EU sanctions went down on their own pace: after all sanctions in combination with Dr Ahmadinezhads economic policies were enough to dramatically reduce the volume of EU-Iranian trade. The same cannot be said for EU-Iranian energy relations, especially in the field of natural gas. True, as in other businesses here too Chinese and other Asian enterprises are eager to take over the Europeans’ businesses whence they should leave; but this seems unlikely. Because energy in the EU Iranian relationship was always more than just business: it was about the EU’s energy security and its increasing dependence on a resurgent Russia. Europe simply cannot ignore Iran (nor the Gulf Region, Iraq or Central Asia and North Africa for that matter) and therefore has to remain engaged in the Iranian energy business.

No doubt, a less aggressive Russian energy policy could certainly help to alleviate European fears from one of its biggest energy providers. But this is unrealistic to ever happen and therefore the US administration should not even try to recommence its Iran policy from a Russian-European angle in order to push the Europeans to forgo their own vital interests.

And this brings us back to the nuclear issue. Here, the diplomatic process embodied by the P5+1 is at the end of a road and in desperate need of a new energy. Until now all attempts for a negotiated solution broke down on two points, the Iranians wish for a negative security guarantee on behalf of the US (unlikely to be obtained) and Iran’s insistence on its rights for enrichment (unlikely for the regime to give up on it). The latter point would Iran make a nuclear threshold power, which forces the American president to at some point taking a decision whether such an outcome, namely a nuclear ready but not weaponised Iran, is acceptable for the US.

Hence direct US-Iranian talks are meaningful. But only as long as two requirements are met: they must be without precondition and they must involve the American president and Iran’s Supreme Leader, at least at a later stage. This forces both sides to be flexible. Yet with regard to the US this is not impossible to be achieved, given the fact that even under Bush the US position on Iran has undergone dramatic changes in the last years. Thus the ball is in Iran’s court and the regime will have to decide whether it favours ideological anti-Americanism over a unique chance for re-engagement.

Needless to say in case Tehran’s Islamists decide for engagement, all chances are open. Not only would the Europeans and at a later stage perhaps the US engage with the Islamic Republic but it will also affect the way how the international community views Iran’s nuclear programme. Of course the contrary is true in case Tehran stalls. This would give those in the US and beyond the necessary argument to intensify their quest for further isolating the country and otherwise putting pressure on Iran. If indeed this should be the case, then the diplomatic safety net which has been provided by the P5+1 format might be seriously weakened.

Walter Posch deals with Turkey, Iran, Iraq, political Islam, Gulf security and Middle
Eastern security issues. This text was first published in “European Perspectives on the new American Foreign Policy Agenda”, EUISS Paris.

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