ISTANBUL — Squeezed between the US maximum pressure campaign against Tehran and Iran’s aggression in the Strait of Hormuz, Europe is boosting its efforts to deal with the crisis.
France is leading European efforts to save the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) following the US withdrawal from the agreement and implementation of crippling sanctions by Washington on Iran.
Europe can play a key role in facilitating talks between Iran and the United States, even if it has little influence on the outcome of negotiations.
“Only the US and Iran will decide whether any mediating effort will be successful or not,” Ali Fathollah-Nejad, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Centre, said by e-mail.
Iranian President Hassan Rohani responded to the European drive by hinting he might be open to a possible tanker swap with Britain and indirect talks with the United States.
Following a visit by French President Emmanuel Macron’s top diplomatic adviser to Tehran, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi met Macron in Paris the week of July 5 to deliver a message from Rohani.
The initiatives are a break from tradition because they see European powers act to protect their own interests in a major international crisis involving the United States. They reflect changing transatlantic relations as a result of US President Donald Trump’s strong unilateralism.
Fathollah-Nejad said France was a good fit as a mediator because Paris wanted to keep the nuclear deal with Iran alive but shared many of Washington’s concerns about Iran’s regional policies and ballistic missile programme more than some other European countries.
“The primary point, however, is the flexibility needed in the Iranian and American capitals,” he added. While Washington would have to lift some sanctions at least temporarily to arrive at an understanding with Iran, Tehran would have to agree to talk not only about the JCPOA but also about its missile programme and its involvement in conflicts in the region.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, asked if he would be willing to go to Tehran for talks, told Bloomberg Television: “Sure. If that’s the call, I’d happily go there… I would welcome the chance to speak directly to the Iranian people.”
Diplomatic efforts could receive a boost when envoys of the remaining partners to the 2015 nuclear treaty — China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom — meet in Vienna to look at ways to keep the accord afloat without the United States. Iran said it would attend the meeting, which, Tehran said, was requested by the European parties to discuss the “new situation” after Iran reduced its nuclear commitments in response to the US withdrawal.
France, Italy, the Netherlands and Denmark support a European-led naval mission to ensure safe shipping through the Strait of Hormuz, three senior EU diplomats said, after Britain proposed the idea following Iran’s seizure of a British-flagged oil tanker.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian is working with European partners on an observation mission to ensure maritime security in the Gulf. He made no mention of a Europe-led “maritime protection mission” announced by British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, offering instead what seems to be a softer version.
France is working “at this moment on a European initiative” with Britain and Germany, he told lawmakers, without elaborating. “This vision is the opposite of the American initiative, which is… maximum pressure” against Iran.
The Europeans are facing defiance and conflicting signals from Tehran that could undermine their moves to keep the nuclear pact from falling apart.
Speaking at a cabinet meeting July 24, Rohani appeared to widen Iran’s claim over regional waterways of the Middle East to the Bab el Mandeb Strait, the strategically important entrance to the Red Sea at the south-western tip of the Arabian Peninsula, about 2,000km from the nearest Iranian territory.
“Along with maintaining the security of the [Arabian] Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, the Islamic Republic of Iran works for the safety of other waterways in the world, including the Bab el Mandeb and the Indian Ocean,” Rohani said on his website.
In the same statement, Rohani hinted at a solution in Iran’s row with the United Kingdom over the seizure of a British oil tanker by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in response to British authorities in Gibraltar stopping an Iranian tanker reportedly on its way to Syria.
“We are not going to continue tensions with some European countries and if they are committed to international frameworks and abandon some actions, including what they did in Gibraltar, they will receive a proper response from Iran,” Rohani said.
Fathollah-Nejad said the tanker incident had unfavourable consequences for Tehran.
“Iran’s seizure of the UK-flagged oil tanker has produced an outcome to Tehran’s distaste, namely bringing many European states together in that effort to patrol oil shipping in the [Arabian] Gulf,” he said.
One difficulty for European officials is the cacophony of contradictory messages from the Iranian regime. Top officials in Tehran had their European counterparts scratching their heads over the question of whether Iran would be willing to talk with the United States.
Rohani said Iran could agree to negotiations if conditions were right. However, on the same day, the military adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was quoted as saying Tehran would not negotiate with the US administration under any circumstances and that if Washington decided to go to war then all American bases in the region would be targeted.
Thomas Seibert is an Arab Weekly contributor in Istanbul.
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