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EU: Will 'Constructive Engagement' With Iran Pay Off?

The European Union's foreign-policy chief Javier Solana has been visiting Iran with, as he put it, the determined aim of improving ties with the Islamic Republic. This is part of the EU's policy of "constructive engagement" with Iran, which is in contrast to the U.S. policy of isolating the country. What exactly does the EU hope to gain? And are there any signs that it is achieving these goals?

Prague, 30 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The visit to Iran by European Union foreign-policy chief Javier Solana represents a big step for the EU's policy of constructive engagement with the Islamic Republic.

Speaking in Tehran yesterday, Solana said the 15-member EU is "determined to improve ties" with Iran. He announced that negotiations will begin in October on a trade-and-cooperation pact between the two sides.

The EU's approach appears to differ markedly from that of the United States. Washington has put Iran on a list of countries forming what it calls an "axis of evil" on account of what it sees as Iranian support for terrorism and attempts to develop weapons of mass destruction. Iran denies those accusations.

However, the substance of Solana's message was not all that different from Washington's. After talks with President Mohammad Khatami, he told reporters there are two major obstacles to improving Iranian-EU ties. In line with U.S. thinking, he listed these obstacles as the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction and Tehran's dealings in the Middle East. That's a reference to its alleged links with terrorist groups, as America accuses Iran of supporting militant groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Solana said Iran must address these concerns.

A key question that arises is: What is the European Union trying to achieve with its nuanced approach? An EU official in Brussels, who is close to the policy making on Iran, says the aim is to "keep a door open" for the Iranians, encouraging them to continue their reforms.

The official, who preferred to remain anonymous, described Iran as "quite an important country" and a "key player" that is halfway through a reform process. He acknowledged that the path chosen by Brussels is a "difficult and delicate" one, but he said the EU believes it must not close itself off from Iran.

He said the policy of engagement is only beginning, and that if there is no sign of willingness from Tehran to make progress, then the dialogue will not last very long. The official also said that in addition to concluding the trade-and-cooperation pact, the EU plans to issue a joint declaration with Iran on their political dialogue -- probably including references to human rights -- and also to exchange letters on cooperation in the fight against terrorism. All these documents are set to be finished in about a year, though no firm date has been set.

According to the comments of the official, it seems the EU's aim is to talk to the Iranians and offer them a trade deal to improve their deeply sagging economy in hopes of supporting reformist elements and gradually bringing Iran around to international norms of behavior.

The next question is, will that tactic work?

Paris-based Islamic expert Olivier Roy said the EU policy is useful. But he said it will take time before it produces any results.

Roy said his view of the Solana trip is that its objectives are limited, and that it is not intended to bring results on major areas of disagreement. "The idea is to tell the Iranians [that] they should keep a low profile, that despite their internal differences, it's not the time now to adopt a tough stand on human rights and on Israel, so I think its a message of moderation [to all factions in Iran]," Roy said.

Reports from Tehran say the EU has asked Iran to use its influence with anti-Israeli militant groups to calm the situation in the Middle East. The reports quote diplomats as characterizing Solana's talks with Khatami and Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi as "tough." They also said Solana insists that Iran contribute to a peaceful settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Solana said publicly yesterday that it is sad that Iran does not share in the coordination on the Mideast question that is shared by the EU, the United States, the UN, Egypt, and Jordan.

Another analyst, Shahram Chubin, the director of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, has his doubts about the EU's approach. He said the Europeans have nothing to show for their policy so far. "On the American side, they are not particularly happy with the European engagement, and the Europeans are not making much progress, judging from the number of people being put in jail [in Iran] regularly," Chubin said.

Chubin said it's clear that the Americans believe in containment on Iran, and the EU believes in engagement, but he said both these policies are failing. He noted reports that the U.S. administration of President George W. Bush is becoming disillusioned with reformist President Khatami, who has long seemed unable to make progress against hard-liners. "Khatami himself appears unable to achieve results in relation to his own aides and assistants who are jailed, and [as a result], one wonders whether the EU pressure on him really amounts to pressure at all," Chubin said.