The recent Presidential elections in Iran, in which moderate reformist cleric-candidate Hassan Rowhani seems to have the upper hand against his five conservative rivals, may present a once in a lifetime opportunity for the European Union to gain influence in the Middle East and assert itself as a first-rate diplomatic power. Mr. Rowhani, who promises to free political prisoners, to guarantee civil rights and to steer the country towards moderation, has prompted the supporters of the Green Movement to think twice about boycotting last Friday’s elections, even though their candidates have been excluded from participating.
The complex geopolitical context of the Middle East, featuring an internationally quasi-isolated Shia Iran vying for regional supremacy with the dual the pursuit of a nuclear program and its so far successful proxy involvement in the bloody Syrian civil war, attaches nearly unprecedented relevance to the election of a moderate as the next Iranian President. However, not all international powers are equally suited to shine in this complex chessboard: America's bonds with Israel and upcoming engagement in Syria all but neutralize its chances to become a trusted broker, non-interventionist China is not willing and possibly not ready to be active in the Middle East, and Russia has already taken sides. Only the European Union has the necessary independence, regional clout and credibility to pursue an effective policy of mediation aimed at conflict resolution, both in the case of Syria's conflict and in that of the Iranian nuclear program.
The terrible reality of the Syrian civil war should not blur Europe’s vision and obstruct its chance to become a force for good in mediating the end of the hostilities and finding a solution that is acceptable and sustainable over time, thus also extending its clout in Europe’s most immediate neighborhood, an area of major importance and opportunity for Europe, as stated by the December 2008 Report on the Implementation of the European Security Strategy and highlighted by the creation and the Union for the Mediterranean.
The EU should refrain from joining the Obama administration in its recent decision to directly arm the Syrian rebels. Prompted not as much by humanitarian concerns as by geostrategic realities, the American policy shift is being dictated by the urgency of the situation on the ground in Syria and the problems it entails for achieving a negotiated end to the war on terms that Obama favors. Arming the Syrian Islamic Front, which loosely brings together 11 armed Islamist rebel groups and including extremists with ties to al Qaida, would mean standing behind a fragmented coalition of radicalized forces that perpetrated war crimes and would probably infuse Islamic law into a future Syrian government. Is this the outcome the European Union – and, for that matter, the United States – really want for Syria?
That being said, Europe’s diplomacy should not abstain from openly criticizing both sides for their unlawful and indiscriminate use of violence, including by condemning in the strongest possible terms the use of chemical weapons by the governmental troops, while maintaining or tightening current sanctions aimed at the Assad regime, keeping the lanes of political dialogue with the opposition fully open and reviving the call for the celebration of a multilateral peace conference.
Taking a confrontational stance would seriously compromise Europe’s credibility to act as a peacemaker and reliable mediator and partner. Europe should base its response to the Syrian crisis and Iran’s meddling in it via its proxy Hezbollah by means of its soft power, putting its economic and political clout at the service of all stakeholders in order to find an exit to the current dramatic situation.
In addition to altering the events in Syria, the election of Mr. Rowhani would probably open the door for further negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. During his campaign, Mr. Rowhani has not shied away from openly addressing topics such as the nuclear stand-off with world powers, the international sanctions, the dire state of the economy and Iran's extreme isolation in the international community.
However, the Islamic republic cannot afford to throw itself into the arms of the U.S., Israel’s closest ally and largest economic backer. The very backbone of the Iranian political discourse is aimed at the denial of the legitimacy of an Israeli state, and entering direct negotiations with the U.S., the country that installed the Shah in 1953, whose misgovernment and repressive leadership eventually caused the 1979 Revolution, would entail an essential contradiction that could only erode any legitimacy the Ayatollah regime could still have among many of its subjects.
In such a context, the EU could emerge as the effective honest broker it has been trying to be for years via the Council-backed diplomatic efforts of France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the EU High Representative (). This quartet produced three far-reaching proposals, the latest coming in 2008, but Iran’s failure to meet the basic conditions for opening negotiations led instead to the passing of four UN Security Council resolutions, whose provisions the EU is currently endorsing. Continued dialogue has not led to any substantial progress, as also attested by the Deputy Director General for Safeguards of the IAEA, who recently acknowledged that the parties have failed to agree on a structured approach document that has been under negotiation for a year and a half. In other words, we are still at point blank.
However, that does not mean that the European Union should not try to move forward, especially if Mr. Rowhani's election marks a change of direction in Iran's policies. European proposals for a negotiated resolution, such as the ones put forward in June 2006 and May 2008, would help Iran to develop a modern civil nuclear power program while meeting international concerns about its peaceful nature. For these proposals to become acceptable for an Iranian side which might be more willing to listen and to sell them to its internal public opinion and pressure groups, a honest broker must be seen as leading them.
After the historic agreement between Serbia and Kosovo, brokered by the EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton after six months of negotiations between formerly irreconcilable parts, Europe's diplomacy might be capable to play a similar role with Iran, despite its inability to offer the same combination of sticks and carrots it offered to Kosovo and, especially, Serbia (Belgrade basically had to accept the conditions imposed by the EU to start accession talks). Perceptions neutrality and credibility can become a major force to advance muddy negotiations, and there is no reason why the EU should not renew its efforts to try and change the current stalemate.
The opportunity to shine and to make a difference is there for the European Union to take it. It is time for proactive European engagement and an offensive based on soft power to become a credible power breaker and force for good in the Middle East. The recent success in the Balkans can and should be replicated, and this time the consequences would be even more far-reaching.