The recent US attack killing general Qassem Suleimani is merely the latest move in a chain reaction triggered by a President Trump’s erratic policy choices on Iran starting with his decision to walk out of the nuclear agreement (JCPOA) and apply on it “maximum pressure” without developing a coherent strategy instead. Each of his decisions could have made sense on its own. But his unilateralism, myopia and inconsistency have resulted in an upward spiral of friction and violence with Iran and its regional allies and left the JCPOA on life support. Iran has predictably elected to resist the US pressure by undertaking ever bolder steps to breach its obligations under the nuclear agreement, attack Western and US assets and those of its regional allies, and scale up its subversion in and from Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. While at the same time brutally suppressing any sign of genuine domestic dissent over corruption, and economic plight. Herein lie the seeds for greater distress and conflagration in a region not precisely known for its stability and civility. Trump is unable to forge a constructive engagement with Iran any more than he has developed with the DPRK. China is similarly preoccupied with a series of domestic woes. While Russia which has its hands in ever larger number of pots is too closely aligned with Iran. Which leaves Europe in a unique position to step in to halt retaliatory terrorism, perhaps even rapid deterioration toward war, that would likely follow Iranian attempts to avenge Suelleimani’s death.
True, the EU is about to lose the UK. It is also encumbered by multiple sources of internal as well as external tensions. Yet Iran has been the one issue where a concerted European diplomatic effort has been consistently meaningful, at critical times successful, over the past 17 years. Europe has a vested interest in Middle East stability as well as in the welfare of its people. And while it lacks US like military might, its diplomatic acumen, economic prowess, and cultural appeal are precisely what is presently needed to infuse many of the Iran related crises with some hope.
Let us recall how it all started, because the parallel with today’s scene are striking. In the aftermath of the Iraq War driven by flawed US allegations reliable revelations begun to surface suggesting that the real nuclear weapon program of concern resides in Iran. With George Bush’s US rebuffing Iranian overtures for dialogue, preferring instead to ostracize it as pillar of the Axes of Evil, the European Troika (EU3) stepped in. Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer coupled with his French and British counterparts personally immersed themselves in the mission to secure Iranian nuclear concessions. When their remarkable early gains perished as a result of renewed Iranian intransigence, they joined forces with the US to take Iran to the UNSC, impose on it tough economic sanctions, yet keep their hand extended for resumption of dialogue. It is this sophisticated dual track approach that eventually paved the way for the 2013 interim nuclear agreement (JPOA) and the permanent deal (JCPOA) in 2015, one that the EU considers its crowning diplomatic success and is striving to resuscitate.
Europe must now act fast and decisively to build on President Macrons’ efforts and revive European diplomacy with Iran. To have any chance of success of getting both Iranian buy in and Trump’s reluctant blessing (similar to George Bush at the time), a few principles must be adhered to.
First, the agenda for the European engagement must cover three time horizons: immediate, short term follow up, and longer perspective. The most immediate goal is to diminish the prospects of an all-out conflagration triggered by either successful Iranian vendetta and/or meaningful steps to shorten its breakout time toward a nuclear bomb. The shorter term agenda should then be to develop the ad-hoc European intervention into a diplomatic process, while the longer term goal ought to be regional stability.
Second, , to achieve the necessary diplomatic breakthrough nothing short of personal engagement at the highest level (Merkel ,Macron and Johnson or their foreign ministers ) in order to have a fighting chance to get traction in both Iran and the US, acquiesce from both Russia and China, and success in pacifying likely concerns in the region from Israel, UAE, and Saudi Arabia.
Third, the short term agenda would have to be comprehensive agenda consisting of three baskets of issues of serious concern to the international community: regional, nuclear, missile. The human rights issue which is no less important, will have to dealt with at the long term phase ( however,as a gesture of good will, one would expect Iran to release the Europen detainees ). Modest progress on all four should suffice to take us past the US and Iranian presidential elections in the Spring of 2021, and longer-term goals for a permanent comprehensive settlement thereafter.
Finally, the diplomatic effort must have all the hallmarks of a true critical dialogue. To force the more belligerent Iranian leadership to take the European initiative seriously while attracting sufficient US interest Europe must leverage two of its strongest assets. Its willingness to offer Iran an economic lifeline if it heeds its demands while simultaneously threatening to join the US pressure campaign on Iran and endorse the snapback of sanctions if Iran elects otherwise. Similarly, Europe should offer to intensify or conversely threaten to withdraw the normalization of ties with Iran if the latter sustains domestic and regional behavior so objectionable to European values and interests. Even the more extreme Ayatollahs in power in Iran would be reluctant to risk further isolating their proud nation at a time in which their hold on power is already severely challenged by domestic dissent.
Notwithstanding Iranian boastful statement about severely punishing the US and its accomplices which are useful for domestic purposes, the risk averse Iranian leadership cannot afford to take action against the US that would have its fingerprints all over it and result in killing Americans and triggering massive American retaliation which they can ill afford. They are thus likely to turn to cyber attacks, modest scale up of uranium enrichment as well as proxy action against oil supply, US Gulf allies and Israel, which they will argue are indigenous expressions of outrage against the killing of General Sulleimani. Consequently European diplomatic effort will have to address all three threats right away, subsequently expanding the agenda to cover attacks on US and allied assets and IRGC efforts to strengthen its foothold outside its borders and inspire Shia’a mercenaries in foreign lands. While the longer-term goal would be to bring Iran into a process of establishing a broader Middle East cooperative security architecture.
In line with this de-escalation logic, on the nuclear basket Iran must now also have to desist first from further enrichment activity, subsequently roll back all recent steps that encroach on its JCPOA obligations and address forthwith all IAEA Safeguards concerns. the longer term goal should be to address the JCPOA pitfalls and extend the revised agreement for many more years . Most critically any viable long-term arrangement must condition Iranian enrichment activity on established needs, abandon solely indigenous/national enrichment activity, make Iran finally concede its past nuclear bombmaking aspirations and subject these to benchmarking and rigorous ongoing verification.
on missile front things are far more pressing, bearing a real escalation potential. Here Europe must precipitously secure Iranian obligation to heed UN Security Council resolutions and halt further development of nuclear capable missiles, along the lines of the recent EU3 ambassadors’ letter to the UN Secretary General. Additionally, Iran must be required to immediately stop deploying long-range delivery platforms (ballistic and otherwise) across the region and forswear further testing and transfer of missiles exceeding MTCR guidelines to their regional proxies. While the longer-term agenda should additionally include establishing a permanent ban that is either Iran specific and/or anchored in a regional arrangement) on developing new ballistic and cruise missiles (drones too?) exceeding a 1000kms range as well as missile transfer to and deployment in other countries.
Last but certainly not least is Iran’s dismal human rights record. Here Europe must explicitly link Iran’s domestic behavior to any rewards it covets in return for moderating its behavior in the other areas. Iran must be made to understand that frivolous detention of Europeans and indiscriminate violence against peaceful demonstrators is something Europe cannot tolerate. Its longer-term goal should be to encourage transformation of the Iranian regime toward one more respectful of and accountable to its own population. But an effort aimed at securing such commitments will necessarily have to be part of the longer-term agenda.
In the final analysis a viable role for European diplomacy here hinges on two factors. Its ability to forcefully communicate to the Iranians leadership its behavioral expectations and determination to hold Iran onto them. And its corresponding capacity to impose on Iranb even tougher sanctions, or alternatively deliver to Iran meaningful relief especially in the immediate as well as the short-term (loan guarantees, oil export options) both to alleviate the latter’s current predicament and encourage it to take EU diplomacy seriously. Naturally, the latter presently depends heavily in the coming year on sufficient European rapport with President Trump to win it some elbow room for give and take diplomacy with Iran. Clearly a toll order on both counts. Yet Europe can build on the reluctance of both parties to slide into overt military confrontation, and their common interest to avoid their publics’ recriminations over the toll exacted by foreign adventures. For Europe the Iran issue thus presents both a pressing necessity and an opportunity to re-establish its diplomatic acumen, showcasing what it can accomplish on the global stage on matters of great importance to its own security as well as the world writ large.
Ariel E. Levite is a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment’s Nuclear Policy Program and a former senior Israeli national security official.
Shimon Stein is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at the Tel Aviv University and a former Israeli Ambassador to Germany.