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Nuclear Talks With Iran: Will New EU and US Roles Make a Difference?

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By Johan Bergenas – Last week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that the country’s nuclear negotiators will return to talks with the P5+1 (the five permanent UN Security Council members and Germany). Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s new foreign policy chief, played a key role in bringing back Iran to the negotiating table. Now, the prospective September talks represent an opportunity for Ashton and her organization to play the high-profile global role that the EU desires. To her and the P5+1 advantage, the circumstances that hampered previous European and international efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear standoff -the lack of US participation and Iranian perceptions that the country had little to gain by talking with Europe-have improved and could be capitalized on.

Since becoming the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs in December 2009, Ashton has made the Iranian nuclear conundrum one of her office’s top priorities and consistently urged Iran to return to the negotiation table. In June 2010, after the UN Security Council imposed a fourth round of sanctions on Iran for not complying with international nonproliferation rules, Ashton sent a letter to Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, calling for the resumption of talks. On July 20, the top EU diplomat met in person with Iran’s foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, and again stressed renewed negotiations.

Ashton’s instrumental role is an important milestone in her first year in office and increases her international clout. While many uncertainties remain about the prospective September talks, Ashton’s work to bring the parties together suggests that she will play a similar role to that of her predecessor, Javier Solana, who represented both European and international negotiations teams in discussions with Iran. Solana’s efforts failed partly due to the lack of active engagement by the U.S. and the perception in Tehran that, besides playing for time, there was no direct benefit in negotiating with the Europeans.

Two key developments have improved the negotiations’ prospects. First, engagement with Iran is a key pillar of President Barack Obama’s strategy to deal with the Iranian nuclear conundrum. A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State recently said that Washington stands ready to talk with Tehran. With American negotiators at the table, broader security issues vis-à-vis Iran can be discussed in a credible manner since the US is the only country that can ultimately assuage Iran’s national security concerns.

Second, despite Ahmadinejad’s dismissal of the new sanctions as a “handkerchief which should be thrown in the dustbin,” there is evidence that the new international sanctions are adversely affecting Iran. In early July, Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Agency, became the first senior Iranian official since the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1929 to admit that sanctions could slow progress in the country’s nuclear efforts. Salehi said that while sanctions “will not stop” Iran’s nuclear program, “[o]ne can’t say sanctions are ineffective.”

EU, US, and other unilateral sanctions are also likely to compound pressure on key parts of the Iranian economy, which is already hurting from domestic mismanagement. The sanctions target Iran’s foreign trade, transportation, insurance, financial and energy sectors. The latter sector is of particular concern for Tehran because Iran lacks sufficient domestic refining capacity and relies on imported technical assistance and technology transfers for its gas and oil industry.

It is not only Ashton, Obama, and international and unilateral economic pressure that deserve credit for the resumption of talks and the improved atmospherics. Iran has helped the negotiation climate by engaging with Ashton in recent weeks and opening space to compromise over its nuclear program. Following the announcement that Tehran was ready to resume negotiations with the P5+1, Salehi publicly said that so long as nuclear fuel to Iran would be guaranteed, the country was ready to rethink its controversial decision to enrich uranium to 20 percent. In May, Iran also inked a fuel swap agreement with Brazil and Turkey similar to the offer made by the P5+1 in October 2009. The West reacted negatively to the Turkey/Brazil/Iran deal because it did not take into account changes in Iran’s material capabilities and stockpile, but it did indicate that there is Iranian flexibility over its nuclear program.

Iran’s willingness to return to the negotiation table may be another move drawn from Tehran’s past nuclear playbook of delay and deception. However, if the country does show up in good faith, Iranian negotiators will be confronted with a fundamentally different dynamic than during previous diplomatic engagements. September’s talks are also an opportunity for both the EU and the US to demonstrate new diplomatic approaches. 

Themes in this spotlight reflect a July 2010 article published in World Politics Review as well as a forthcoming journal article in the November 2010 issue of the Nonproliferation Review.

Photo Credit: EU website:

Johan Bergenäs is an associate n the Stimson Center’s Managing Across Boundaries program.


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