Iran, the West, and the Rest: Détente by Increment
BRUSSELS—In a famous comic strip, Hobbes, holding a dart gun, asks his best friend: “How come we play war and not peace?” Calvin answers: “Too few role models.”
On November 24, the E3+3 and Iranian officials agreed to a one-year timeframe in which to conclude negotiating and start implementing the final step of a comprehensive solution that would ensure Iran’s nuclear program will be exclusively peaceful. An interim period of six months will see technical conversations take place, and will determine all parties’ willingness “to maintain a constructive atmosphere for negotiations in good faith.” As the process moves forward, the Joint Plan of Action’s greatest achievement might indeed lie beyond appeasing immediate concerns over Iran’s nuclear program. The agreement itself, the context that made it possible, reactions to it, and subsequent initiatives all tend to demonstrate that the game has changed.
First, direct, and often secret, talks between U.S. and Iranian officials have contributed to restoring some renewed trust in each other’s intentions. Second, Iranian President Hassan Rohani’s election in June has made striking a deal with Iran politically acceptable in both Europe and the United States. Third, diverging reactions and contributions from regional neighbours may draw a new map of influence in the Gulf and Middle East. Fourth, with diplomacy driving the process, the equilibrium between threat perception and strategic interests is slowly evolving — at the level of the E3+3 group, such an agreement, which includes Russia and China, also indicates that diverging assessments of Tehran’s intentions are reducing. In addition, the European Union, through its high representative, has demonstrated its unique capability to lead and foster negotiated agreements among world powers, even when its own member states are directly involved. Baroness Catherine Ashton’s legacy as the head of the European External Action Service seems assured. Most importantly, her personal involvement in brokering the deal will most certainly shape expectations of her position for years to come. Beyond its content, the Joint Action Plan is a first necessary step toward a constructive relationship between Iran and the E3+3 — much more than the 2003 agreement was. This time, political will at the highest level in Washington and Tehran has allowed for direct talks — even before President Rohani’s election. This was also made possible by the astute involvement of seasoned diplomats looking beyond the sole lens of nuclear proliferation. It was made possible because circumstances, timing, and opportunity allowed it. Technical implementation of the agreement is under way, and there are increasing signs of reciprocal initiatives to strengthen mutual understanding. Among them is a visit of a delegation of members of the European Parliament to Tehran. Of course, the agreement in Geneva is merely a necessary first step, not an end in itself. Implementing the plan over the course of the next six months will prove to be a tightrope exercise. Already, there are increasing internal pressures aimed at destabilizing the deal’s implementation. Some are even suggesting “punishment” of any failure to meet commitments, under the reasoning that threatening to impose more sanctions will create the conditions to suspend existing ones.
While EU member states have called for swift implementation of the agreed steps, it remains unclear how Congress will react as the White House pushes for a pause in U.S. sanctions. The strategic impact of both the interim agreement and the ultimate final step could have huge implications for peace, prosperity, and stability in the entire region. Some ambiguities do remain — such as between the right for Iran to enrich uranium and the right to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes — but as domestic pressures from sceptics and conservatives escalate, leaders must ensure that ongoing and future discussions do not stumble on old passions. Yes, a “green telephone” exists between Washington and Tehran, and the European Union is more instrumental than ever in keeping the line open. Even before the November 24 agreement, President Rohani’s phone call to U.S. President Barack Obama in New York marked a milestone in the two countries’ relations. The Joint Plan of Action could signify that both Americans and Iranians are willing to engage in good faith at the highest level. In this process, the EU, as an institution, must play a crucial role in making it happen. Margaret Mead was right when she said “a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
As 2013 comes to an end, there just might be such a group at the highest levels of power in Washington, Brussels, and Tehran. In Moscow and Beijing, a wind of compromise is blowing as well. For once, the bullies and the fear mongers may not get to play war. But it will require patience and understanding, one step after the other.
Guillaume Xavier-Bender is a program officer for economics in the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.