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Iran: Solana Visit Highlights EU Policy Dilemma

  • Ahto Lobjakas

The EU's foreign and security policy chief Javier Solana has wrapped up a two-day visit to Iran. The bloc's relations with Iran are delicately poised at the moment, and member states are split on whether to resume the "twin-track" dialogue with the country on trade and human rights. The talks were suspended in June pending assurances from Iran that its nuclear program is not a threat to world peace. The mounting pre-election tensions between Iran's conservatives and reformers have now emerged as another complicating factor.

Brussels, 13 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Originally, Javier Solana's two-day visit to Iran, announced last month, was intended to probe Iranian progress on dissipating doubts over its alleged nuclear weapons program.

The EU had suspended talks on trade and human rights improvements last summer, saying Iran must sign an International Atomic Agency protocol allowing for stringent UN inspections of its nuclear facilities. But late last year, a joint visit by British, German, and French foreign ministers secured a promise from Iran to that effect.

However, much of Solana's talks in Tehran over the past two days have centered on a more topical issue, namely the decision by Iraq's conservative Guardians Council to block a number of sitting members of parliament, as well as many first-time candidates, from running in next month's elections.

The European Parliament's "rapporteur" for Iran, Michael Gahler, a deputy tasked with compiling country reports, told RFE/RL yesterday he believes the EU should not rush to restore discussions with the country before the issue is resolved. "If it were that this situation were not solved -- if it were that the 80 members of parliament and the hundreds of other candidates were, on the day of the election, still being banned -- I think we should not go on to business as usual. At this stage, I think we should also leave some options open -- it depends on the current affairs. I would not definitively say what our reaction should be," Gahler said.

Gahler said a group of MEPs (Members of the European Parliament) will be traveling to Tehran in two weeks to assess the situation.

In Tehran yesterday, Solana said it would be "difficult" for the EU to countenance any interference in the electoral process.

EU officials say there is no consensus within the bloc at this time on whether to resume talks with Iran quickly or wait for further concessions. The European Commission appears to be pushing for a flexible approach, arguing that action against weapons of mass destruction -- although at the top of the EU priority list -- is one of four main goals. The others are the fight against terrorism, Iran's cooperation in the Middle East peace process, and progress on human rights.

Nevertheless, one official told RFE/RL that the European Commission recognizes no moves will be made to restore talks before the head of the UN's International Atomic Energy Administration, Mohammad ElBaradei, reports to the body in February on Iran's actual willingness to cooperate on nuclear issues.

The official also suggested that supporters of a tougher line within the EU, led by Britain, point to the conclusions of the last EU foreign ministers' meeting in December 2003, which decided cooperation can only be resumed "if there is full international confidence in Iran's adherence to non-proliferation." The official said there is a "spectrum of views" among the member states, with many asking whether Iran "has done enough."

Eberhard Rhein, a senior analyst with the Brussels-based European Policy Centre, told RFE/RL today he expects EU foreign ministers to play for time at their next meeting in Brussels on 26-27 January, but predicts the eventual decision will be positive.

"They will once again deliberate, they will take stock of the domestic situation, of the international situation, on all these three [the progress Iran has made regarding weapons of mass destruction, the Middle East peace process, and human rights] and maybe additional accounts. There will not be, in my view, a decision before [Iran's parliamentary election in February]. If the elections will take place with full democratic representation, and if the Ministry of Interior and [President Mohammad] Khatami impose their will on the judiciary [and other reactionary bodies] to restore the initial candidates, then I think the [European] Union will have no choice but to tell the [European] Commission 'Go ahead, talk to the Iranians and see whether you can pursue and resolve negotiations,'" Rhein said

Rhein says a resumption of talks with Iran is likely well before the end of June.

EU officials acknowledge that Iran is in a "delicate situation" internally. One official said it was "no coincidence" that the Iranian climb-down over its nuclear program followed a high-level EU visit to Tehran. The official went on to suggest that forces in Iran in favor of greater cooperation with the West now expect counter-moves from the EU.

One important theme at issue here is the assistance promised by the British, French, and German ministers for Iran's civilian nuclear projects. The United States, on the other hand, continues to question the need for any nuclear programs in Iran.

Rhein is convinced the EU will eventually choose to capitalize on the long-term success of its "constructive engagement" with Iran, believing its influence has played an important part in the ascendancy of reform-minded forces in the country who continue to need outside support.

Rhein says the EU-Iranian talks, once resumed, will inevitably contain important elements for the EU, putting human rights observance and the rejection of WMD by Iran on a "contractual basis."

"So, an agreement will be much more in our [EU] interest than the Iranian interest. The agreement does not carry any political, economic, or financial substance -- it is a framework, nothing else. Everything can be done, so it's a gesture. It helps the Iranians out of their isolation [and allows them] to say that, 'We have now formal diplomatic and contractual relations with one of the big players of the world -- the European Union,'" Rhein said.

Rhein agrees Iran may play a key role in attempts by the EU to emancipate its "common foreign and security policy" from United States foreign policy. Rhein says a continued EU engagement with Iran, if crowned with success, would both bolster the bloc's image and provide an important service to the United States in the region.

"Probably the Americans [are] increasingly ambivalent to the European Union. Whenever the European Union scores a success they will see it as rivalry in an area they normally cover for themselves. But on the other hand, they should be happy because if the [EU] goes ahead and scores a success that will allow them to follow suit," Rhein said.