This week Great Britain, France and Germany resumed talks with Iran over its nuclear program. All eyes are now watching whether the European Union, when it comes to Middle Eastern affairs, can play and not just pay.
For the first time in its short history, the E.U. has a real opportunity to play a crucial political role in the region. This time around, Europe is not acting on behalf of others, but is instead a front-line player whose diplomatic skills will be put to the full test by Iran’s strong determination to pursue a nuclear program.
In the days leading up to the resumption of negotiations this week, Tehran was offering anything but commitment and goodwill. The Islamic Republic’s recently elected president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has been conducting a violent, racist and crazy campaign against Israel. He has made light of the Holocaust, implying that it is just a myth, and he has suggested moving the population of the Jewish state en masse to Europe or North America.
But while the EU3, as the European negotiating team is known, has unequivocally condemned Ahmadinejad’s war of words, it is likely to fight for a compromise solution to Iran’s nuclear program. In exchange for Tehran giving up its quest for nuclear weapons, the E.U. is expected to offer generous aid to help Iran build a strictly controlled nuclear energy program and for social purposes such as medicine and agriculture.
The outlines of a negotiated settlement between the EU3 and Iran are for the most part clear. The real problem for the European negotiators is navigating between the inflexibility of Ahmadinejad and his fellow radicals and the pragmatism of other forces that represent the vast majority of Iranians.
The cost of charting the wrong course has already been made apparent to the E.U., and perhaps to the United States as well, by this past summer’s presidential election in Iran. Not encouraging moderates to vote for the frontrunner against Ahmadinejad, Hashem Rafsanjani — a former president who, while not a moderate in the mold of his successor Mohammed Khatami, is far less radical than the current president — was a costly mistake.
The need to engage the Iranian middle is now clear, which is why the EU3’s efforts are more important than ever. But if they are to make any progress, Great Britain, France and Germany must bring their fellow Europeans into the debate. The EU3 decision to negotiate with Iran over its nuclear program was taken not, as the negotiating team’s nickname would suggest, by the whole E.U., but rather only by its three biggest powers.
Iran’s main commercial partner in Europe, Italy, has been left out of the negotiations. With no official place at the table, the loudest voice being heard in Rome is coming from the streets, which needless to say is not where policy is made.
When Ahmedinejad called for Israel to be wiped off the map in late October, the Italian newspaper Il Foglio organized a 10,000-strong pro-Israel demonstration in front of the Iranian embassy in the capital. It was, to be sure, an excellent initiative from a moral point of view, but complicated in political and economic terms. Rome has strategically maintained close business ties with Tehran, but you would never have known it from the media in Great Britain, France and Germany, where headlines were screaming that Italy was against Iran.
The need for the EU3 to be on the same page as the rest of the E.U. cannot be understated, because the other Western players in this nuclear game have limited political room to maneuver. The United States is treading cautiously, partially because opening another front in the Middle East would be quite hard for Washington, and partially because the Shiite majority in Iraq would be unlikely to follow a hard line against their brethren across the border.
The situation is equally delicate for Israel, which has made it absolutely clear that it will never tolerate a nuclear Iran but which is also afraid of creating an explosive situation in the region, particularly if it leads to instability in neighboring Syria. And consideration must also be given to Russia and China, which hold veto power over any United Nations Security Council sanctions against the Islamic Republic and may very well wield it to protect their economic interests in Iran.
In short, right now only the E.U. is capable of defusing a dangerously tense standoff with Iran. The recent stationing of European monitors at the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt — a military team, it is worth noting, that is led by an Italian colonel — has shown that there is an important role for the E.U. to play in maintaining security in the Middle East.
But it remains to be seen whether the European powers are politically mature enough to properly exercise their influence in the ongoing confrontation with Iran. Much depends on whether the EU3 transforms itself into the “EU25,” for only if it acts as a unified power will Europe be able to prove that it can safely swim through the troubled waters of the Middle East.
Antonio Ferrari is senior Middle East correspondent for the Italian daily Corriere della Sera.