Iran’s tango with Europe is rooted in its traditions and culture

French President Emmanuel Macron and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani met at UN, New York, Sept 23, 2019.

The joint statement issued by the leaders of France, Germany and the United Kingdom on September 23 indicting Iran for the attacks on the Saudi Aramco plants two weeks ago is at once consequential and declaratory. 

The joint statement may seem a serious diplomatic setback for Tehran, as the joint French-German-UK (E3) stance may transform as the European Union position. If that were to happen, only Russia and China, among world powers who are signatories to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, continue to maintain that there isn’t evidence yet to establish Iran’s culpability. 

Prima facie, Iran’s dependence on Russian and Chinese goodwill would further increase. Both Moscow and Beijing harbour misgivings about Iran’s nuclear and missile development programmes and some of its regional policies, and have so far played coy refraining from frontally assaulting the US sanctions against Iran, while rhetorically critical. It’s a set pattern.   

Secondly, Iran’s diplomatic thrust projecting itself as a factor of regional stability suffers a PR setback if it is perceived as undermining regional security and risking a major conflict involving the US. Thirdly, the joint statement brings on board other related issues. These are, principally three.

One, the three E3 have repeated their call on Iran “to reverse its decisions to reduce compliance with the deal and to adhere fully to its commitments under it… [and] to cooperate fully with the IAEA.” 

Two, the E3 underscored that Iran should “accept negotiation on a long-term framework for its nuclear programme as well as on issues related to regional security, including its missiles programme and other means of delivery.” Three, they have urged Iran to engage in “with all relevant partners interested in de-escalation of tensions in the Middle East” and “refrain from further provocation and escalation.” 

Clearly, this is a one-sided statement.  Tehran insists that its compliance with the 2015 deal is part of mutual commitments, but not only the US but also the E3 failed to fulfil their part of the commitments, which in turn compelled Iran to react in accordance with the stipulated provisions of the deal (which allow Tehran to take steps if other parties are defaulting.) 

Again, Tehran has also repeatedly stated that its missile programme constitutes a “red line” and it is not open to discussions / negotiations. Suffice to say, the joint statement marks a calibrated distancing from Iran on the part of the European powers. 

The joint statement smacks of the “Boris Johnson effect” — London acting as the US’ junior partner. It cannot be a coincidence that Britain pushed for a European stance critical of Iran at a juncture when the US and UK are stepping up efforts to assemble a politico-military coalition to address maritime security in the Persian Gulf (basically, to isolate and provoke Iran in its backyard.) 

Britain is considering participation in the US-led military coalition alongside Saudi Arabia and the UAE. France and Germany remain lukewarm about the Anglo-American enterprise. 

Having said that, the E3 are also highly vulnerable to pressure from petrodollar states of the Persian Gulf, and in this case Saudi Arabia and UAE have high stakes.  

Conceivably, the Trump administration can derive satisfaction that the European stance on the Iran question has edged closer to its policies (although E3 do not subscribe to the maximum pressure approach.) 

How Tehran perceives this E3 shift is important. Iran’s diplomacy is supple and Tehran will unlikely deny itself the diplomatic usages of the European conduit.  

The point is, Iran greatly values its strategic autonomy and factors in that Russian and Chinese support comes with strings attached. Besides, Iran’s ambitions as a regional power demand the creation of an advanced economy with innovation, which is only possible if it has access to western technology and capital. 

Therefore, while the “Look East” and multipolarity of the world order remain key templates of Iran’s world view, that cannot come at the cost of Iran’s integration into the western world. 

Arguably, the mildly worded European statement leaves the door open still for further cogitations between France and Iran over the diplomatic negotiations initiated on the sidelines of the G7 summit in Biarritz recently. 

Just a few hours before releasing the E-3 statement, French President Emmanuel Macron had warned that “one must be very careful in attributing responsibility” for the Aramco attacks. 

“There are clusters of clues, but this bombardment is a new military event that changes the region’s ecosystem,” he said, stressing that caution was needed in apportioning blame for the attack. Since then, Macron also has had a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in New York on September 23. 

Given the “westernism” in Iran’s psyche and considering the European powers’ manifest keenness to have a productive relationship with Iran, both Iran and the E3 will ensure that life moves on. 

Historically, Britain has a profound understanding of Iran’s politics, culture and traditions and it is hard to see even PM Boris Johnson identifying with US’ maximum pressure approach, although he has taken a position closer to Trump.

For the present, London feels somewhat humiliated over the “tanker war” with Iran, but it cannot be the new normal. Johnson is due to meet Rouhani today and may even be transmitting messages from Trump.