By Riccardo Alcaro
The seven-month extension of the nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 — the five UN Security Council permanent members plus Germany and the European Union — has generated mixed feelings. On the one hand, there is disappointment over the failure to resolve this longstanding issue and increasing concern that the gaps between the parties are too wide to bridge. On the other hand, there is relief that all parties have refrained from walking away from the talks and have instead kept diplomacy alive.
The P5+1 may find some comfort in the fact that Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani is apparently so keen on negotiations that he has agreed to a simple roll-over of the existing interim agreement — the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) — despite the fact that it has brought Iran few tangible benefits. The sanctions relief Iran obtained under the JPA has been modest, but the concessions Tehran accepted in terms of limits on its capacity to enrich uranium (a process which can be used for both civilian and military purposes) and increased access to its nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are substantial.
For the P5+1, then, the roll-over of the interim accord is a second-best option. This is particularly true for the Europeans, who see themselves most vulnerable to the risks associated with a breakdown of diplomacy. China and Russia do not feel as threatened by a nuclear-capable Iran as the United States or Europe. And while the Obama administration has invested much energy and political capital in the nuclear talks, it could adapt to breakdown in diplomacy. The United States has a ‘Plan B’ that involves moving toward heavier sanctions and the threat of bombing.
The Europeans would have a harder time adjusting. The nuclear talks with Iran are the one international security issue outside of Europe on which they have played a vital role. It was the Europeans who first engaged the Iranians, who devised the dual-track approach combining the offer of incentives with the threat of sanctions, and who facilitated the formation of the P5+1. The EU foreign policy chief — first Javier Solana and then Catherine Ashton — has acted as the chief interlocutor with the Iranians on behalf of the P5+1. The disappearance of the negotiating framework would all but remove Europe’s ability to influence the Iranian nuclear issue and it would deprive the EU of the highest profile international stage on which it has ever performed.
But Europe has more to lose than simply a presence on the stage of international diplomacy. Despite France’s fondness for taking an even tougher stance than the United States — which is either a pose or a questionable calculation that Paris would be okay without a deal — Europe sees powerful advantages in a negotiated resolution. First is the security interest, shared with the United States, in avoiding further tensions in the highly volatile Gulf region.
Then there is the economic interest, as the negotiation failure would preclude Europe’s access to Iran’s market for many years to come. While major EU energy companies have accepted that Iran’s lucrative energy sector is off-limits and have directed their investment elsewhere, they relish the prospect of a future re-entry to Iran. And for export-oriented small and medium enterprises, which are not as resilient, the continuing loss of businesses with Iran would be more damaging.
In addition, the P5+1 offers Europe a valuable platform for multilateral engagement among the major world powers. The forum proves that selective engagement is possible, and can deliver results, even when relations with China and especially Russia are fraught with problems. For the Europeans, this is critical because they are more exposed to the ongoing confrontation with Russia than the Americans. More generally, multipolar competition has proven more challenging for the EU’s intergovernmental foreign policy decision-making, its lack of credible hard power assets (with the partial exceptions of France and the UK), and its fondness for multilateralism, rule of law, and open trade.
As the French have amply demonstrated, Europe does not want a deal at any cost. But of all the parties involved, the Europeans are probably the most determined to settle the Iranian nuclear issue. Indeed, they conceive their role in the negotiations as preventing the worst instincts of the Americans and the Iranians from spoiling the process. In this regard, they have been partially successful and have played an instrumental role in avoiding a breakdown, time after time.
Now, after more than ten years of hard slog, they can almost sense victory, tantalizingly close, but seemingly forever beyond their reach. Under these circumstances, and with the JPA freezing in place the Iranian nuclear program, the Europeans will accept and encourage the continuation of the nuclear negotiations for as long as they can.
Riccardo Alcaro is a visiting fellow with the Center on the United States and Europe at Brookings.