This Saturday in Istanbul, Catherine Ashton, the EU Foreign Policy chief, will lead the P5+1 talks with Iran over its nuclear program – more than a year after the last negotiated attempt failed because Iran wasn’t prepared to discuss its nuclear program unless the P5+1 removed all sanctions and recognized its right to enrich uranium.
Looking back at the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1, one can realize how Iran, throughout the years, bought time by pretending to be open to proposals, to then just reject them and defy the international efforts, while in the meantime it continues to enhance its nuclear program and build secret nuclear sites. The EU3 (UK,France and Germany) started by offering several proposals to Iran in 2004-2005. It became P5+1 mechanism when USA, Russia and China joined, and the proposals offered to Iran were one track of the ‘dual track strategy’, which was complemented by sanctions imposed through the UN Security Council (where China and Russia dragged their feet for long). The sanctions have effect on the Iranian economy, no matter what Iranian politicians and diplomats say publicly, and it is the EU who can make the sanctions even more effective.
The EU is still Iran’s biggest trading partner – EU imports from Iran in 2011 amounted to €16.3 billion (compared to €14.5 billion in 2010 and €9.4 billion in 2009) while exports to Iran amounted to €10.5 billion (decline from €11.3 in 2010). The EU as a whole had €72.4 billion in trade with Iran in the past 3 years. Almost 90% of EU imports from Iran are energy related, while Iran ranks as 6th supplier of energy products for the EU.
The EU decided earlier this year to play its strongest card, external trade, and agreed about a ban on oil imports from Iran, but it will only come into force in July, pending a review in May (the ailing economies of Italy and Greece are heavily dependent on Iranian oil). Meanwhile as part of strengthening positions towards the talks on Saturday, Iran announced that it will stop oil imports to Spain and threatened it will do the same with Italy and Germany.
The talks and what will follow them in the next months will be a big test for the credibility and coherence of EU foreign policy, where it is common to see especially the big countries in the EU who prefer to pursue their national interests over the bloc interests. The EU must enforce the oil embargo and get ready to find alternative oil supplies for the continent.
This is not an easy task during recession in Europe and when Russia and China strongly engaged economically with the Islamic Republic. Iran’s economy relies heavily on energy imports from the EU and on EU’s technology for the energy market, that’s why it is the right decision to target the country’s oil and gas industry. The talks are Iran’s last chance but let’s not be naïve about the outcome of the talks. Iran is not going suddenly to open up its nuclear sites for international inspectors, neither to stop enriching uranium. It is the role of the EU sanctions to try and prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons, but sanctions can only be effective if all EU countries enforce them without any exception – that’s the challenge the EU faces and it must ensure that the sanctions come into place as planned and adhered by all the 27 members.