April 2007

The EU and Iran: What if sanctions fail?

Clara Portela

If UN Security Council sanctions fail to deter Iran from pursuing its nuclear programme, what strategy should the European Union adopt?

Over three years after the so-called E3 (France, Germany and the UK) started talks with the Iranians in an attempt to halt their uranium enrichment activities, the situation has now reached a standoff: the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has imposed its second round of sanctions in only three months, to which Iran has responded by partially suspending co-operation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Following the imposition of sanctions by the Security Council, the EU adopted its own measures, enlarging the UN blacklists with additional names of high-ranking Iranian officials. But what if UN sanctions fail to persuade Iran to give up uranium enrichment? What can the EU do to overcome the current impasse?

Let’s start with what the EU should refrain from doing: EU members of the UNSC should not support the launch of preventive strikes aimed at Iranian nuclear installations. In principle, the use of force is consistent with the EU security approach as outlined in the European Security Strategy and the EU Strategy against the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction. Once the diplomatic path and sanctions fail, the use of force is contemplated in the EU toolbox as a "last resort" – as long as it is UN-mandated. Yet, the kind of surgical strikes that some in the US advocate are bound to fail as an instrument for non-proliferation in the medium term: they certainly slow the process of acquiring nuclear weapons, but they would do nothing but convince the Iranians that they need the protection of nuclear weapons. It was not the Israeli bombing of the Osirak reactor in 1981 that prevented Iraq from developing the bomb – without the UN inspections regime that followed the Kuwait war, Iraq would most probably had fulfilled its nuclear ambitions. The Iranian crisis necessitates a durable solution.

Iran’s dependence on oil exports has led some commentators to argue for the imposition of an embargo in order to coerce it into compliance with UN demands. But for the time being, the EU should not upgrade the existing sanctions regime. Imposing sanctions has not been unwise: by referring the issue to the UNSC, the EU has demonstrated its willingness to make good its threat, thereby establishing its credibility in the talks. The unanimous condemnation of Iran by the UNSC has allowed the EU to present itself as an interlocutor of the wider international community. However, in the current climate, there is a danger that intensifying pressure could compel Iranian leaders to permanently cease co-operation with the IAEA. In turn, this might lead to the scenario of unilateral US bombings whose effects would be fatal for the non-proliferation regime.

Sanctions should not be expected to coerce Iran into compliance by virtue of their mere existence. The potential for the success of sanctions rests with the use that the EU makes of the increased bargaining power they have conferred upon it. Pressure on Iran is already intense enough to provide the EU with some significant leverage. In order to use this leverage, European negotiators should first offer a moratorium on further sanctions in order to allow for conclusive talks. This move should be presented as a concession brokered by the EU in response to Iranian anxieties, providing them with a last chance to negotiate a deal rather than obeying to demands. This is an opportunity for "face-saving" that Iran will want to seize. At the negotiating table, the EU should then revert to a strategy of positive incentives. The Iranian rejection of the offers made by the EU to date has a simple lesson: we have to strike a better deal. The EU should put together a package of incentives that does not only offer to Iran the general benefits of trade and co-operation with Europe, but which addresses the concerns that lie at the root of their uranium enrichment programme: a desire for international recognition and for regional security.

With these objectives in mind, it should be possible to design an attractive deal. It should entail the removal of sanctions along with tangible benefits such as a commitment to an enhanced access to technology. Assuaging Iranian security concerns might be more difficult - most countries which have relinquished plans to go nuclear, such as South Korea and Taiwan, have traditionally been granted US security assurances. While the EU is not in a position to provide comparable security assurances to Iran, it can firmly commit to pursue the establishment of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, as well as to promote the ratification of the IAEA Additional Protocols by countries in the region.

The deal offered to Iran needs to address its immediate concerns satisfactorily. But the EU also should recognise that current non-proliferation policies are sending the wrong signal to non-nuclear parties of the NPT. It is no coincidence that the country at the centre of the present crisis shares a border with Israel and Pakistan, two non-recognised but hardly condemned nuclear weapons states.