EU and Iran Find Their Roles Reversed

Scheduled talks between Javier Solana, high representative for the European Union’s Common Foreign and Security Policy, and Iran’s National Security Adviser Ali Larijani were postponed Wednesday over disagreements on the nature of the exchange – would the parties discuss or negotiate?

During much of the summer, the Europeans were seeking Iran’s approval of the June 6 P5+1 package in order to swiftly initiate negotiations. Acceptance of the package devised by the five Permanent UN Security Council members and Germany required Tehran to also immediately suspend all enrichment activities – an activity that all concerned parties consider the prize of the negotiations.

At the time, the Iranians were less interested in negotiations than in discussions to clarify what Tehran described as ambiguities in the package.

Now, the roles have reversed. On Aug. 22, the Iranians presented the P5+1 with a counter-proposal that included an offer to suspend enrichment activities in the course of the negotiations, once the modalities and durability of the suspension had been agreed upon. A categorical and open-ended suspension was simply unacceptable, the Iranians insisted.

Tehran says it is eager to begin negotiations on this basis. From its perspective, this formula will enable the parties to build trust in the course of the negotiations while at the same time making specified suspension – but not permanent suspension – a plausible outcome. This would allow Iran to avoid making an agreement to suspend the basis to permanently deny Iran the right to enrichment.

The EU, however, has not given Solana the mandate to negotiate with Iran. Rather, he has been authorized to discuss the counterproposal with the Iranians to clarify ambiguities in it – which is the position Iran took only a few weeks ago. The EU position is grounded on Security Council Resolution 1696, which demands "that Iran shall suspend all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, including research and development, to be verified by the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency]."

Absent Iran’s compliance with 1696 – which essentially puts the P5+1’s precondition in the form of a legally binding Security Council resolution – negotiations cannot take place, the EU maintains. And just as Iran was given ample opportunities to seek clarifications to the P5+1 package – short of actual negotiations – so should the EU. As a result, Solana has only been given the mandate to discuss the issue with Larijani, but not to negotiate with him.

The Solana-Larijani talks were postponed over disagreements on this point. The Iranians insisted that negotiations should take place, and if Solana was not authorized to negotiate, the EU should send its foreign ministers to the meeting. The EU reiterated that the path to negotiations is already set – i.e., acceptance of the precondition – and that short of suspension of enrichment, only discussions can take place.

While Iran is widely suspected of using the counter-offer to win more time, the EU’s job has nevertheless been made all the more difficult through the insistence on the precondition.

By lacking the power and the means to secure that precondition – short of sanctions or military action – this demand has in many ways way become a trap for the EU. It cannot enforce it, nor can it easily ignore it in order to explore the promises of actual negotiations.

Over the course of the Iranian nuclear standoff, the West has on numerous occasions made demands that proved to be unrealistic. The result has been a loss of prestige for the EU – and the U.S. – and an increasingly emboldened Iran where hardliners thrive on dismissing Western demands. It is unlikely that a continuation of this path through the insistence on the precondition will produce different results in the future.

At this juncture, days before the Security Council revisits this issue and addresses Iran’s failure to comply with Resolution 1696, the cost of failure is increasing at an accelerating pace for all involved parties. If the EU and Iran fail to come to a compromise on how to proceed with talks – or negotiations – the sanctions phase at the Security Council will begin in earnest.

Under those circumstances, a negative dynamic will reign. A lose-lose game will likely begin in which states, rather than making headway, will seek to minimize losses.

Both sides may calculate that the cost of such a dynamic will be greater for the other side, but both also recognize that entering such a dynamic will make the attainment of a negotiated settlement all the more difficult. Breaking that negative dynamic may prove too difficult, and from that point on, the sanctions phase may become a slippery slope toward military action.

It remains to be seen what will break first – Iran’s defiance, or the EU’s unwillingness to give up the precondition and seek suspension as a result of negotiations rather than a prerequisite to them.

Read more by Trita Parsi