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Europe and Iran: Time to Talk

4 minute read
Richard Dalton

It is not exceptional to fall foul of Iran: the country’s ideology, behavior and ambition provoke strong reactions. Egypt and Iran, for example, have never made up over a host of disagreements that go back to the earliest days of Iran’s revolution; their relationship is shot through with differences over Palestine, and exacerbated by the fact that one is mainly Shi’a and the other mainly Sunni. And then there is Tehran’s ongoing feud with the U.S.

Britain gets more than its fair share of any heat going, as we have found yet again with the detention of Iranian staff from the British embassy in Tehran. “Englistan” is seen as the most inveterate and craftiest of Iran’s enemies. Iran’s relations with the rest of Europe, crisis-prone in normal times, are fraying. Tehran would like to get back at the E.U. for postelection protests. On July 6, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said that Iranians deserve better leadership. Iran’s leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, warned that Iran would present a firm fist to “nosy meddlers” in their affairs.

(See pictures of people around the world protesting Iran’s election.)

Fundamentally, political relations between Europe and Iran are bad because their interests often clash, they do not trust each other and they run their domestic affairs very differently. Perceptions matter. Iran’s rulers interpret sympathetic media reports of demonstrations as interference arising from hostility. Insistence that Iran should heed Security Council resolutions on its nuclear program reads as hypocrisy when there is no action on Israel’s nukes. The Iranian leadership rejects what it calls double standards on violence: calling for peaceful solutions but waging war in Iraq. Iran’s government (but not all its people) rejects cultural influences from Western creative industries, which to the authorities reek of moral corruption. The government considers proposed solutions to problems involving Iran to be unremittingly Western, and ones that fail to take genuine account of its interests or rights.

Even before the confirmation of a new term for President Ahmadinejad, it was always likely that Iran’s response to the months-old invitations to talk from both President Obama and the six negotiating countries (China, France, Germany, Russia, U.K. and U.S.) would be wary and tough.

Still, the Iranians are likely to return to the negotiating table at some point: when they do will depend on how soon the turmoil within the political establishment dies down. It could be months. Given the West’s skepticism about Iran’s election results, fresh Iranian government resentments will now be on the table alongside old ones. Crucially, though, these grievances are unlikely to sink the talks before they get started. The issues are too important. Neither side, for that matter, has a better policy in mind. There is absolutely nothing to be gained now from writing off Obama’s and Europe’s policy as bound to fail.

Europe should be heavily involved in what will, if it survives the opening rounds and develops some momentum, be a long and difficult process. Europe needs to emphasize common interests and understand that the other side will not fall into line just because our position is — to us — so obviously right.

Iran needs to realize that it will not divide the Europeans and the U.S. from Russia and China, and that it cannot count on Europe putting its economic interests in Iran ahead of its desire for regional stability. Nor should Iran expect recognition as the single power in its neighborhood — other states have a right to make alliances, and the way to stability in the Persian Gulf region is not to try to drive out powers such as the U.S. but to reconcile different interests within a cooperative security framework. Iran will face further sanctions if it refuses to negotiate seriously.

Iran should see that, great though its potential is, its future requires more, not less, integration in the world economy. An accommodation with the international community as represented in the International Atomic Energy Agency is essential for that. Europe, for its part, needs to rebut criticism that the West has been weak in the face of the clampdown in Iran. More strident or active support for the Iranian opposition would harm it, just as new U.S. sanctions now would do little more than allow Ahmadinejad to claim that the West is as hostile to Iran’s people as he has always maintained.

The Iranian election has made the job ahead much harder. But the determination to find ways of building fresh trust and to create a strong diplomatic process has never been greater.

Richard Dalton is a former British ambassador to Iran and a fellow at Chatham House

See pictures of Mir-Hossein Mousavi.

See Top-10 Ahmadinejad-isms.

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