In 1968, 191 countries signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. This is the same number of countries that have ratified the Kyoto Protocol, the landmark UN treaty on fighting climate change. This is a clear indication of how grave the international community considers the Iranian nuclear threat.
Fast forward forty-seven years, Iran, the five permanent members of the UN security council and Germany, as well as the European Union signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which is known internationally as the “Iran deal”. The signatories hoped that by signing the agreement, they had taken the necessary security measures to control Iran. However, despite the deal the country is adopting a worrying stance and stoking tensions in a region that is already near boiling point. This should give us pause to rethink our approach to Iran.
When we talk about Iran in Europe, we tend to think of a faraway country whose actions have no direct impact on us. Let us be concrete: Iran has the same population as Germany, but in terms of area is almost five times as large, making it one of the most land- and people-rich countries in the region. It has traditionally viewed itself as the rightful hegemonic power in its neighbourhood, a claim it continues to assert in both overt and covert ways.
It is in this context that the various challenges that have developed in Iran’s neighbouring countries should be assessed. The relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia, another power with hegemonic ambitions, should in particular be viewed very critically, as it dictates the dynamics of the entire region. Often the religious conflict between Shiites and Sunnis is said to be the source of the poor relationship between the two countries. However, this is a very one-dimensional view that fails to capture the complexity of the situation, as it does not take account of the absolutely critical role played by economic and political factors. Saudi Arabia and Iran are competing for supremacy in the region, in a struggle that has spill-over outside of their territories. The wars in Yemen and Syria have had devastating consequences, and the fingerprints of these two powers are all over them. Iran’s efforts in this hegemonic struggle fundamentally determines its foreign policy, and indeed underpins its entire nuclear ambition.
The aim of the Iran deal, is thus not only to create trust between the partners, but also to bring about a degree of normality, curbing Iran’s overriding drive for regional hegemony. The lifting of sanctions, the ability to invest in Iran, and to travel the country are elements that are fundamental to a process of normalization that Europe hopes will make Iran a responsible world citizen. As Europeans, we take contracts that we conclude with our partners seriously and stick to our part of the bargain. However, we cannot take it for granted that our partners will do the same. As long as Iran is committed to establishing regional hegemony it will have an overriding incentive to develop nuclear capability, and as long as this is the case we cannot be sure that it will actually abide by our agreement. More than two years after signing the JCPOA, we cannot claim to have found a friend and ally in Iran. In some cases, while trust is good, control is better.
Once again, we have to think about ourselves as Europeans. We are always looking for diplomatic solutions and ways to avoid conflict. Since the end of the Second World War, this type of behaviour has been sustainable, and I believe that we are lucky to live in Europe in a time of peace. But the world does not end beyond our borders, and the lives of many people are jeopardized by the actions of a few rogue states.
In our relationship with Iran, we may be wrong about our reliance on diplomacy. The JCPOA is a good diplomatic tool. For now we feel secure, but what will happen when the contract expires? After that, Iran will no longer be prevented from using nuclear energy, which will likely in turn lead to renewed destabilization in the region, as it has the freedom to once again pursue regional hegemony with the promise of nuclear weapons.
Iran must understand that a signature on an agreement is not enough. It must follow through on its promises with action, by tackling domestic human rights abuses and ceasing its destabilisation of countries in its neighbourhood. It must show the international community that it is genuinely committed to acting responsibly on the world stage, and that it is serious about curbing its hegemonic ambitions. If it does not, the world must be prepared to take serious credible action against it.
It is important that we maintain the Iran deal – in this, Europe is correct. Maintaining dialogue is fundamental for pushing Iran to genuinely reform and act responsibly. However, Europe must not be so naïve as to think that trust alone will ensure a positive outcome. The international community made it very clear that under no circumstances can Iran become a nuclear power. It is incumbent on Europe to act courageously, and to take the necessary steps to make sure this doesn’t happen. In order for the threat of the agreement to be credible, it must be made clear to Iran what economic consequences new sanctions would have. Iran could become a trusted partner in the future, but we cannot afford any leniency now. The price of risking anything else is far too high.