Europe and Iran: The Nuclear Deal and Beyond, by Cornelius Adebahr. Routledge, 2017. 196 pages. $149.95, hardcover.
Nuclear Multilateralism and Iran: Inside EU Negotiations, by Tarja Cronberg. Routledge, 2017. 130 pages. $70.00, hardcover.
In April 2016, Federica Mogherini, the European Union's top diplomat, went to Tehran accompanied by more than half a dozen EU commissioners. The nuclear agreement reached in July 2015 between major world powers and the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), had been in place for three months. As a result, various international nuclear sanctions against Tehran had been lifted, and the Islamic Republic was keeping its nuclear program within the permissible boundaries set by the accord. "We are turning the page," Mogherini declared. "I dare to say that I speak on behalf [of] the 500 million Europeans that are supporting our new era in our relations."1
Mogherini's counterpart at the Tehran press conference that day was Javad Zarif, Iran's foreign minister. In Vienna, too, where the JCPOA had been announced the previous summer, it was Zarif and Mogherini who made the joint statement, each standing behind a lectern bearing the annotation "E3/EU+3 Iran Talks."2 It was not P5+1 Iran Talks, the more familiar formulation in Washington, referring to the five veto-wielding UN powers plus Germany, but EU3/EU+3, signifying the three European powers that had begun the long diplomatic journey with Iran more than a decade before, the European Union, and then the Americans, the Chinese and the Russians — later additions to the deliberations that reached their climax in the Austrian capital. For those who have leaned on U.S.-centric analysis of the talks, two new studies by Cornelius Adebahr and Tarja Cronberg regarding the role played by Washington's allies in negotiating and concluding the nuclear accord will be a welcome contribution.
It is the story of that entity, bound between the slash and the plus sign, that is told by Adebahr in Europe and Iran: The Nuclear Deal and Beyond. Adebahr, a Berlin-based analyst, opens his work with the proposition that "the EU's approach to Iran has emerged as one of the few successes of European foreign policy." His discussion of the Iran negotiations as related to the concept of "actorness" will be of interest to Europeanists; Middle East watchers will benefit from how key U.S. negotiating partners approached the talks; and transatlanticists can take up the analysis of U.S.-EU coordination throughout the negotiations. Cronberg, a distinguished associate fellow at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, was a Finnish parliamentarian and minister who in 2011 joined the EU Parliament. There she served as chair of the delegation for relations with Iran. While the book's subtitle suggests a behind-the-scenes account of the talks, it is more an analytical study than a memoir, addressing the EU as an organization as well as state players.
The genesis of European involvement with the nuclear issue came in 2003. Reports had emerged of hidden Iranian nuclear sites, while across the country's western frontier a U.S.-led offensive had been initiated based in part on the threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Adebahr suggests a trio of motives for what's known as the "E3" initiative, so called because it brought together the French, British and Germans into talks with Tehran. First, the launch of one war made the specter of a second quite horrifying. Second, Iraq had seen European powers divided among themselves, and in some cases from the United States. A repeat of that was unwelcome, as was the final factor of preventing cracks in the global conventions governing nuclear proliferation (p. 42).
Before long, however, that E3 formulation became E3/EU, reflecting the introduction into the mix of the EU rather than just the three member states. Cronberg notes that initially there was a push to have the Russians involved, rather than the British, in the original trio. Formalizing an EU role served to assuage concerns in some capitals regarding the E3's remit, while also making the carrots on offer to Tehran that much more significant — continental in scope, rather than national. However, the period between 2003 and 2005, when the E3/EU were the lead actors in dealing with Iran, yielded no resolution to the impasse. As the file moved to the Security Council, Washington, Beijing and Moscow were brought into the negotiating fold. UN sanctions were quick to follow, but so too did several years of stalemate during which Adebahr assesses the European role as secondary to the broader process. "The high point for the Europeans was over; this was not their game to play," he writes. "They had shifted from developing 'their own' (2003-2005) policy of engaging Iran to trying to shape a broader — ostensibly international, but substantially transatlantic — approach of containing [Iran]" (p. 125).
In the context of this shift, it is important to note the Europeans' growing role in sanctioning the Islamic Republic, which for Cronberg was "the only time during the process when the U.S. saw the EU as an actual partner" (p. 113). These measures notably included a ban on imports of Iranian oil as well as banking restrictions, major elements of "the broadest and most comprehensive sanctions regime [the EU] had ever imposed" (Adebahr, p. 63). Consider here the impact of the continental embargo on Tehran's crude, which came into effect in 2012. Where Europe was once Iran's biggest commercial ally, it now sits fifth.3 The statistics bear out just how striking and swift the downturn was: Total trade fell from more than 27 billion euros in 2011 to just 6 billion two years later.4 Or, to take a more specific example: in 2010, the Netherlands' total imports from Iran were worth just over a billion euros — and close to 90 percent of that was oil. By 2015, after the embargo had kicked in and before sanctions were lifted, those imports had cratered to the unprincely sum of 31 million euros, a third of which came in the form of pistachios.5
The Obama administration's back-channel talks with the Iranians in Oman, and the more pragmatic Iranian duo of President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif, helped usher in the Joint Plan of Action in the fall of 2013. The JCPOA followed two years later. In assessing the EU's role over more than a decade, Adebahr finds that it "represented a 'coming of age' period as an international actor in an important field of international security: nuclear nonproliferation" (p. 171). And yet, in Cronberg's judgment, European policy on Iran did not come without its drawbacks. "The EU cannot be proud of the autonomy of its foreign policy in the Iran case," she argues "The Union will have to make clearer choices between the transatlantic link and a more autonomous foreign policy" (p. 114).
Looking ahead, both authors spot in the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States a potential source of divergence between Washington and Europe. For Cronberg, "the transatlantic link has turned out to be the main challenge of the implementation phase" (p. 116), while Adebahr notes that the president's "disdain for the JCPOA together with a fully-Republican Congress critical of Iran may lead to a number of steps that will heighten the confrontation so that it is impossible to continue with the deal's implementation" (p. 141). The early indications suggest that these concerns may not be entirely unfounded.
It seems no great exaggeration to describe the nuclear agreement as one of the most contentious foreign-policy initiatives of the Obama administration. For the domestic critics of Obama's diplomatic gambit, Rouhani's negotiators were actually offering little more than a nuclear equivalent of the Parthian shot practiced by the ancient Iranian fighters, who pretended to retreat on their steeds before turning and firing arrows at those giving chase. In this interpretation, the deal's sunset clauses on part of Iran's nuclear program, as well as the lack of constraints on ballistic-missile tests, are symptomatic of the JCPOA's shortcomings. The debate in Washington during the final stretch of the nuclear negotiations and its immediate aftermath at times boiled down to traded accusations of warmongering versus appeasement, of lobbies on the one hand and echo chambers on the other. Adebahr rightly points out that very little of this translated across the Atlantic, where the accord was generally met with political endorsement and public indifference (pp. 139-140).
Thus, where Europe regards the nuclear accord as a basis from which to engage Iran further on areas of interest as well as concern, the Trump administration's emergent approach suggests that Washington now sees the resolution of that particular crisis as a prelude to more robustly push back on other areas of Iranian regional policy that concern Washington and threaten its allies.
Indeed, Mogherini speaks of a "dialogue of the 4 Cs: comprehensive, cooperative, critical if needed, constructive always" with the Iranians. The list of issues for EU-Iran discussions includes no fewer than seventeen fields, ranging from scientific cooperation to human rights to migration. Then there is also the commercial imperative — a fifth C, one could say — that Iran seeks and from which Europe benefits. The removal of the oil embargo has helped Iran pull up the nose on its export figures to the continent to the tune of nearly 350 percent growth in 2016.6 And the removal of sanctions has not just been a boon to Iranian exporters, as attested by the steady stream of trade delegations traveling to and from Tehran, seeking opportunities to re-enter a sizable and relatively untapped market that wants to revamp its energy fields, develop its infrastructure and attract foreign investment. Hence the raft of deals being signed with a who's who of European firms (except most leading banks), from Siemens to airplane maker Airbus to energy giants TOTAL and Eni. "Trade," suggested a recent resolution of the European Parliament, "could be an important tool for strengthening the political dialogue and stimulating cooperation among countries in the region."7
By contrast, the United States seems to have taken up the critical and left the other three Cs aside when it comes to its emerging Iran policy. From former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn's putting Iran "on notice" in the weeks after the inauguration, to the president's grave words against Tehran during his visit to Saudi Arabia, and to the comprehensive review of U.S. policy towards Iran — including the nuclear agreement itself — that by summer 2017 was still underway, there seems to be little appetite for comprehensive, cooperative or constructive discussions with Tehran. Rather, on a host of issues, from Iran's ballistic-missile program to its human-rights practices and support for terrorism, new sanctions and siding with regional allies seem to be the weapons of choice.
Annulling the JCPOA, which President Trump lambasted during his candidacy, thus remains a possibility pending the conclusion of the policy review. Yet, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and as acknowledged even by the Trump administration, Tehran has thus far generally stuck to its end of the nuclear bargain. So long as that remains the case, Washington's withdrawal would meet far more opprobrium than applause across the Atlantic: an unmerited renunciation of a hard-fought, if imperfect, compromise that is adequately serving its counterproliferation purpose. "Without the EU," argues Cronberg, "the nuclear deal would not have been possible." Without the United States, that deal may not survive.
1 "Remarks by the High Representative/Vice-President Federica Mogherini at the Joint Press Conference with Mohammad Javad Zarif, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Iran," April 16, 2016. https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-homepage/5240_fr.
2 "Joint Statement by EU High Representative Federica Mogherini and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif," July 14, 2015. Online at https://eeas.europa.eu/delegations/papua-new-guinea/3244/joint-statemen….
3 "Countries and Regions: Iran," European Commission. http://ec.europa.eu/trade/policy/countries-and-regions/countries/iran/.
4 "European Union, Trade in Goods with Iran," European Commission Directorate-General for Trade, 3, http://trade.ec.europa.eu/doclib/docs/2006/september/tradoc_113392.pdf.
5 See "Trade with Iran Picked Up before Embargo Ended," CBS Statistics Netherlands, February 8, 2016, https://www.cbs.nl/en-gb/news/2016/06/trade-with-iran-picked-up-before-….
6 "European Union, Trade in Goods with Iran," 3.
7 See Paragraph 11, "EU Strategy Towards Iran After the Nuclear Agreement," European Union Resolution of 25 October 2016, http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?pubRef=-//EP//NONSGML+TA+….