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Cronberg in The Parliament Magazine on EU-Iran relations

12.7.2013

The election of a new Iranian president should be a signal for Europe to review its stance towards Tehran, argues Tarja Cronberg.

Hassan Rouhani’s unexpected election victory blindsided all observers inside and outside Iran. He was supported by the reformists and pragmatists in Iran’s political establishment, the two political factions that Iran’s leadership had side-lined following the elections and the popular uprising of 2009. During the presidency of Ahmadinejad, these fractions did not disappear even though the scope for freedom of expression and political debate has virtually become non-existent.

Inside the country, hopes have emerged for a moderate version of the Islamic state. Outside Iran, there are cautious expectations of a more cooperative tone in Iran’s relations with the west and a possible resolution of the nuclear problem. It is difficult to say whether Rouhani’s presidency will be different from Ahmadinejad’s only in tone, or also in quality. Yet it is likely that Rouhani will pursue two important goals. He will try to improve Iran’s impoverished economic situation. He will also try to break Iran’s isolation in world politics. Both of these goals will impact the domestic political situation in the country and Iran’s relations with the west.

What should the EU’s response to Rouhani’s Iran be? The EU should consider Rouhani’s intentions to modernise Iran’s economy and foreign policy as an opportunity to improve human rights in Iran and resolve the nuclear issue.

First, the EU should signal to the new president that it would be open to a cautious political dialogue with Iran that goes beyond the nuclear negotiations and includes important issues of human rights and regional stability. In this regard, the European parliament and its delegation for relations with Iran play an important role as a platform for political dialogue with Iran.

Second, the EU could consider using the incentives of easing its economic sanctions to facilitate an agreement on the nuclear programme. Like any Iranian president before him, Rouhani will stand for Iran’s right to enrich, however, he might be easier to reach agreement with on terms of verification and monitoring. More importantly, Rouhani will have to improve Iran’s dire economy in order to meet the expectations of the population. Economic reforms will be easier to enact in the absence of the sanctions. Therefore, Rouhani might be interested in reaching an agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme sooner than his predecessor and having some of the sanctions lifted.

Finally, the EU needs a comprehensive strategy on Iran. The feeling of surprise after Rouhani’s victory reflects the lack of understanding of Iran’s complexities and unpreparedness of the EU for changes in this country. The EU needs to better understand Iran in order to formulate a comprehensive policy approach to this country. As stated in the latest European parliament report on the EU’s common foreign and security policy, opening a mission in Tehran would greatly increase the EU’s effectiveness as an external actor. Rouhani’s presidency might provide an appropriate moment for that.

Rouhani’s unexpected victory is an opportunity for the EU to deliberate on its vision and strategic goals in its relations with Iran. It is crunch time for Europe’s policymakers, including the members of the European parliament, to commit to this challenging task.

Original article in The Parliament Magazine

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