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With the announcement of the Iran deal, it is clear that a new era of Western engagement with Iran has begun. And, from the Islamic State (also called ISIS) in Syria and Iraq to instability in Yemen, cooperation has never been more important. But it would be difficult for diplomats in Washington and Tehran to jump right in. On the U.S. side, much of the country’s political class remains suspicious of Iranian intentions and mindful of the two countries’ long history of bad blood. The same is true on the Iranian side. European diplomats, however, are well placed to explore engagement with Iran—and they should, both as a way to promote stability in the region and to assert Europe’s status as an independent power.
In remarks about last week’s nuclear deal, Federica Mogherini, the EU High Representative, was explicit that it could “open the way to a new chapter in international relations.” In fact, the basic plot points for this chapter were drafted long ago. Europe and the Islamic Republic have faced real tensions in their relations. But unlike the United States, EU member countries, with the exception of the United Kingdom, never froze diplomatic ties with Iran. In fact, it was Javier Solana, who was then the EU high representative, together with representatives from France, Germany, and the United Kingdom (known as the E3), who kicked off the diplomatic channels with Iran on the nuclear issue that concluded in the Vienna deal.
The Europeans were able to take such an active role in nuclear negotiations because of their history of engagement with Iran. The high point was known as the Comprehensive Dialogue, which followed Iranian President Mohammad Khatami’s election in 1997 and his unprecedented outreach to the West. The European Union mandated a broad dialogue with Iran on global issues, including terrorism, nuclear weapons, Afghanistan, the Middle East Peace Process, human rights, trade, and energy. Deeper and more frequent interactions with Tehran led to breakthroughs on thorny issues, such as Iran’s support for Hezbollah.
This period of cooperation hit roadblocks—the nuclear standoff and outlandish statements against Israel by former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad severely deteriorated European–Iranian ties. But the election of Hassan Rouhani as president in August 2013, and Rouhani's progressive tone since, helped start to improve things. Since the interim nuclear deal was signed in November 2013, there have been at least 17 foreign ministerial trips to Iran and, reportedly, 103 European trade delegations. These visits have been exploratory in nature, but they have aimed at setting the stage for deeper political and economic engagement with Iran, preconditioned on a final nuclear deal.
It is likely to be years before the world sees any significant rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia.There is another reason for Europe to lead the charge in searching for new openings with Iran: it is closer to the Middle East, and is more vulnerable to conflicts on its doorstep, from refugee inflows, to internal radicalization, to Islamophobic backlash. Iran has had a role in perpetuating conflicts in the region and undercutting Western interests and security. For precisely this reason, Europeans have understood that any lasting solution to the regional crises will have to involve Tehran. Europeans also largely accept that it would be simplistic to think that the Islamic Republic has always acted against the West’s interests. It has proven useful in stabilizing Afghanistan. It has helped ensure Baghdad’s survival by leading the ground offensive against ISIS. It made use of its links to Hezbollah to prevent the collapse of Lebanon’s political structure by supporting a power-sharing arrangement with the Saudi-backed March 14 Alliance movement.
Even U.S. officials, including U.S. President Barack Obama, have quietly acknowledged that his administration’s regional objectives may be better served by engaging with rather than containing Iran, particularly in building a counter-ISIS strategy in Iraq. But with the P5+1 framework now largely shuttered, it is not obvious how U.S. officials could do so.
Europe could be part of the solution. A recent report by the European Council on Foreign Relations calls for Europe to begin a regional engagement process and devise a formula for “high-level and high-intensity” outreach with both Iran and Saudi Arabia. The paper recommends that the EU High Representative and the E3 should use the nuclear deal to start this process, with France and the United Kingdom drawing on their close relations to Saudi Arabia, and Germany deploying its relative edge with Iran to push for de-escalation in the region. The E3 surely recognize the need to prioritize regional outreach, and it is unlikely that any country alone will want take on this ambitious role alone. The E3 are likely to capitalize on the political momentum that has followed the nuclear deal to start such efforts under a collective European umbrella and in a way that maximizes their influence on regional stakeholders.
It is likely to be years before the world sees any significant rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia; in fact, the two countries’ relations will probably deteriorate in the short term. Realistically, it won’t be until they reach their thresholds for confrontation that they look to Europe to help them navigate their way out of violent regional rivalries. At that point, Tehran and Riyadh could be persuaded to chart a more constructive course for the region, especially if doing so were part of a European-mediated dialogue. For now, Europe can establish the necessary links between counterparts in Saudi Arabia and Iran, particularly those who would be involved in an eventual settlement. For now, the EU high representative and the E3 foreign ministers should encourage and push both sides to reduce tensions so as to prevent violence. Given Iran’s relative position of strength after the nuclear deal, Europe would like to see Tehran making a more meaningful outreach to Riyadh—particularly on de-escalation in Syria. And so the Europeans should link discussions on economic development in the region to the need for stability, which will be required for energy cooperation and trade.
This European outreach should be closely coordinated with the United States. In the short to medium term, and in the time remaining on Obama’s tenure, the United States will be constrained in its ability to engage with Iran—and most attempts to do so will happen behind closed doors. But if Washington and Tehran can start to build a positive record by successfully implementing the nuclear deal, the United States can gradually play a more explicit role by joining existing platforms of engagement with Iran on regional issues, such as those established by the Europeans or the United Nations.
In dealing with other recent foreign policy challenges, particularly the conflict in Ukraine and heightened tension with Russia, the European Union’s efforts have been diluted due to disunity among member states. The Iran file presents a chance for the Europeans to once again play an active role in strengthening global order through the diplomatic leadership they exercised by starting the nuclear talks. Just like the nuclear issue, addressing regional conflicts with Iran will be challenging. Europe should use the diplomatic momentum created by the nuclear deal to test the possibility of cooperation with Iran on contentious regional issues. The process might be slow or seemingly impossible at first. But Europe has the political space, the need, and the blueprint to start pushing forward on this path.