Iran-Europe Relations: Role of Domestic Developments

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Nabi Sonboli
Research Fellow of the Institute for Political and International Studies (IPIS)

Development of relations with Europe has had regular advocates in Iran and various measures have been taken to that effect. Perhaps, one may claim that the energy shown by Iran for the development of relations with Europe cannot be matched with Tehran’s efforts to expand ties with other geographical regions. All those efforts, however, have not led to desirable effects and Europe’s positions on various issues related to Iran have been sometimes even harsher than US positions. Why? The main reason is the close link between every country’s internal and external developments. As we will discuss below, foreign policies of countries are closely interlinked to their domestic developments and any effort for reparation of bilateral ties will go astray if interactions between these two fields are ignored.

When analyzing Iran's relations with Europe, the role and importance of two sides’ domestic developments are usually ignored. Relations between the two sides grew steadily and gradually following the termination of Iran's war with Iraq, especially in the 1990s and early 2000s. Trade relations were expanded and despite some vacillations, political relations were also on the rise. Critical dialogue was replaced with comprehensive negotiations. Those developments were the final result of what went on inside Iran and Europe and in line with both sides’ interests. Despite all those changes, the ultimate outcome of a whole decade of critical dialogue, comprehensive negotiations and further talks between the European troika and Iran, in addition to Iran's full cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency and complete suspension of nuclear activities was nothing more than Europe’s proposed packages of incentives which fell short of meeting the demands of Iran's political currents. As a result, Iran revised relations with Europe and gradually restarted and even expanded nuclear activities. The change, however, has caused a long deadlock in bilateral ties.

Despite common interests which connect Iran to Europe, relations between the two sides have been at a stalemate over the past eight years. In spite of dire conditions governing bilateral relations, neither side has shown willingness or serious resolve to help realize those interests. This shows that mutual willingness is more important than common interests in improving bilateral or multilateral relations. If two or more countries show enough resolve to improve and expand relations, common interests will follow. However, when there is no resolve to do that, all common interests will be easily ignored and all efforts will be in vain.

It seems that Iran has failed to make a connection between the image and position of different countries, and their domestic developments. As a result, Iran's foreign policy apparatus makes decisions on the basis of a fixed and unchanging image of the outside world. For example, there is a lot of difference between Europe in 2006 with the 1990s, or even Europe in 2003. Failure of negotiations with the European troika and rejection of the European package in 2006 was an outcome of Europe’s domestic developments. Starting in early 1990s just following the collapse of the Berlin wall, independent tendencies started to gain control in Europe with France and Germany trying to show an independent face. As a result, they were taking independent positions on Iran, opposed US sanctions against Tehran and did their best to improve political and economic relations with Iran. The climax of independent European policies was opposition of Germany and France to US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Following invasion of Iraq in 2003 and early victory of the United States, neoconservative tendencies grew in Europe. Election of Ms. Merkel in Germany and Sarkozy in France were direct results of such tendencies. US failure in Iraq became evident following 2007. Before that date, conservative and neoconservative tendencies were on the rise in Europe.

UK was a US ally while Merkel’s Germany and Sarkozy’s France distanced from past independent policy of their countries and joined US trans-Atlantic alliance. As a result, the Europe as existed in 1990s and early 2000s was no more extant from the middle of 2000s onward and European countries were no more willing to expand ties with Iran. Consequently, unlike the era of the former French president, Jacques Chirac, and the former German chancellor, new positions taken on Iran's issues by these countries new leaders, Sarkozy and Merkel, are not much different from positions taken by the former US President George Bush. Of course, Germany’s positions have been somehow softer than those of France, which is a result of Berlin’s economic and political interests in Iran. Sometimes, they also use such moderate positions as a bargaining chip during talks with other allies.

Although total failure of US in Iraq and Afghanistan became more obvious after 2008 and Bush was replaced by President Barack Obama in 2009, that change was not paralleled with a similar change in Europe. Neoconservative and conservative politicians still hold the reins of power in many European countries. As a result, positions taken on Iran by such European countries as France have been even sharper than the US positions. Even in practice and unlike what happened in 1990s, European countries have been aligned or even ahead of US unilateral sanctions against Iran. Some delays in getting along with the US sanctions actually arise from decision-making problems inside the Union.

During this period, Iran has still been insisting on the need to continue dialogue on the basis of past proposed packages in order to find a solution to the country’s nuclear issue. The United States and major European countries, on the other hand, do not think about common interests with Iran or finding a peaceful solution to the nuclear issue anymore. The fact that European countries have not been trying to come up with a new initiative and their opposition to initiatives of other countries such as Brazil and Turkey or Russia (step-by-step plan) attests to this reality. The United States and Europe know that Iran's nuclear program is peaceful and does not pose any threat to them. However, if that issue is solved, they will be deprived of their main tool to put regional and international pressure on Iran. As a result, they need an international pressure lever to contain Iran's regional power and are using Iran's nuclear issue to that effect. This is why they have tried for years to cause negotiations to fail and blame it on Iran. Weakening Iran is the real policy that the American and European neocons have adopted and it does not matter who is really ruling in Tehran. This is an ideological approach taken by the West and they don’t even care about cost-benefit considerations. The main obstacle to implementation of their whims is existence of strategically and economically realistic people who argue that the political and economic costs of the West’s new policy are too heavy. Therefore, a comparison among positions taken by Western political, economic, and military officials will reveal that threats to Iran are usually posed by political officials of those countries.

European groups and politicians that supported dialogue and interaction between Iran and Europe have been weakened and marginalized in the past few years. The influence of rightist groups is on the rise in Europe and this process has increased influence of the Israeli lobby on the European policies. The Israeli lobby has been, and still is, trying to block all the paths which lead to Iran from Europe. This trend has benefited ideological factors, narrow visions, and prejudgments which are now instrumental in making decisions on Iran. Some decisions taken by European officials even defy common sense. Imposing sanctions against persons or entities in Iran which have no relationship to the country’s nuclear issue, opposition to Iran's cultural activities and scientific interactions, and even viewpoints expressed by certain extremist European circles which opine that all positive measures taken by Iran in line with confidence-building is a sign of the country’s weakness as a result of sanctions, are clear examples of such decisions and positions.

At present and in the near future, the most important priority for European countries is to overcome the euro crisis. At international level, adjusting European countries’ foreign policy to the ongoing developments in the Middle East and North Africa is the most important concern. Both developments, however, have had different effects on the political scene of Europe. While economic problems may make European countries more introversive and realistic, regional developments in North Africa and the Middle East may lead to a crisis of identity in European countries and may even strengthen anti-Islamic tendencies in that continent.

The first and foremost concern of Europe in the Middle East and North Africa is fear about possible repetition of Iran’s Islamic Revolution in those regions. They are even concerned about Turkey being taken by the Middle East and North African countries as role model, though they try to conceal their worries about this. Increased influence of Turkey in the Middle East and North Africa reminds Europe of the heyday of the Ottoman Empire. Under such fluid regional conditions, Europe will be against any measure which may further bolster Iran’s regional influence and will support any form of domestic or regional challenge against Iran. There are certain circles which love to see a confrontation between Iran and Turkey over Syria or to pitch Iran against another one of its neighbors. This will enable them to better manage the ongoing developments in the Middle East and North Africa which is in immediate neighborhood of Europe.

Aligning foreign policy of the European Union to that of UK has been another factor which has left its mark on Iran’s relations with the European countries. London’s efforts to control the European Union’s foreign policy apparatus in the past few years have undermined relations between Tehran and the European capitals. The European Union’s foreign policy toward Iran during the past two years has been mostly affected by UK’s policies which are, in turn, a function of US policies. Although Ms. Catherine Ashton does not enjoy the powerful support of all the European countries, she has played a great part in attuning EU’s foreign policy to London. This issue is not limited to Iran, but UK has been able in many instances to attune France’s foreign policy approaches to its own. A prominent example was the military operation in Libya which was carried out without asking for Berlin’s viewpoint. Germany, on the other hand, lacks a powerful foreign policy and is not able to lead an independent European policy on its own.

As the experience with dialogue of civilizations and détente has proven, Iran’s internal and foreign policy developments are not enough per se to improve the country’s relations with the European Union. However, if changes in Iran coincided with developments in European countries, they may provide new opportunities for change. During the next couple of years, we will see a series of changes in internal policies of major European countries, including Germany and France as well as the United States. The exact direction in which those changes may move is not clear yet, but it seems that Europe and the United States will go separate ways. This means while conservative and neoconservative politicians may regain the power in the United States, economic problems in Europe may weaken conservative and neoconservative tendencies and lead to election of center-right or center-left governments. Of course, it should be noted that this development may occur at political level, but at social level, further growth of rightist political tendencies in Europe and the United States may happen and this will cause more problems for Iran’s foreign policy.

Given heavy military presence of the United States in the vicinity of Iran, continuation of the current political deadlock between Tehran and Washington will be more harmful to Europe than US because the situation in Europe is not independent of the security situation of Iran. Therefore, as the experience in Iraq has already proven, the US behavior toward Iran can be managed even if a Republican president is elected in 2012 election. Empowerment of moderate political tendencies in Germany and France in the next two years can provide grounds for a change in Europe’s treatment of Iran. These, however, are only one flip side of the coin and future outlook of relations between Iran and Europe also depend on domestic developments in Iran and whether Iran wants to be a player at regional and international levels or just a tool to be used? A condition for being a regional and international player is that foreign forces are not able to exploit internal conditions of a country. Foreign interventions in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria in the past decade have shown that when friends and enemies are defined within framework of a country’s borders, regional and international rivalries spill over to domestic environment of that country. Under such circumstances, politics and foreign relations among countries as integrated players will be no more meaningful. As a result, the target country turns into a tool in the hands of other states and will lose the game. As long as various political currents in a country are not ready for dialogue and constructive interaction with one another and do not respect other parties rights, nobody can expect the same to happen in the foreign policy of that country.

Unfortunately, media literature used by various political groups in Iran does not help the country to present the image of an integrated and consolidated political player at international level. In these conditions, foreign players which are weak prefer to wait and see what happens, while world powers are encouraged to interfere. As a result, foreign rivalries spill over into Iran and this may cost the country very dearly.

The current deadlock between Tehran and Washington will most probably continue for a couple of years to come. The internal developments of Iran, Europe and the United States provide all sides with a good opportunity to review their policies as well as their strengths and weaknesses. To adopt a suitable approach, we must go over past experiences and adopt a suitable approach with an eye on the ongoing political trends in the country and the region as well as at international level. In view of the existing trends, Iran will need to bolster its economic security, national unity, and defensive power in the future and this feat cannot be pulled off by a single political group. The main axis of unity in any system of government, especially in the Islamic Republic of Iran is people. To promote Iran’s position, it is imperative to achieve national unity by increasing and encouraging political participation of all political groups and to encourage the participation of the young generation. This will also improve administrative, political and economic efficiency of the country.

As long as Iran is not facing a serious internal challenge, external challenges posed by the United States and Europe will be manageable. From a regional viewpoint, the current state of events in the region is not harmful to Iran. Out of seven countries which have been swept by the wave of current changes and developments, only Syria has had close relations to Iran and the rest of them have been allies of Europe or the United States. Iran should try like other countries to increase its role and influence under any conditions. To realize the country’s national interests under the present fluid circumstances, Iran requires resilience and speed of action. From an international viewpoint, emergence of multiple poles of power in the world and internal challenges facing Europe and the United States do not promise the success of pressure and sanctions policy against Iran.

Iran’s foreign policy should focus on strengthening the country’s regional standing and avoid of wasting available resources in faraway regions. Challenges with the United States and Europe will continue as they did in the past. They are not ready to accept presence of any regional power in the Middle East. New powers, however, are emerging and big powers will have to bet on the winning horse to maintain their foothold in the region. It is for us to settle internal disputes and turn Iran into a stable regional and international player, or fan the flames of those disputes and make the country a tool in the hands of global powers.

Source: Iranian Diplomacy (IRD)
Translated By: Iran Review

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