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Cautious Move To Open A New Chapter in Iran-EU Ties

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By Said Khaloozadeh* | IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

TEHRAN (IDN) - Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, paid a two-day official visit to Iran on March 9-10, 2014. During her stay, she met with the Iranian President Dr. Hassan Rouhani, Islamic Consultative Assembly (Majlis) Speaker Ali Larijani, President of Expediency Council’s Center for Strategic Research Ali Akbar Velayati, and Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani. Her visit to Iran was a very important development, which can be analyzed from various angles.

Ashton’s visit to Iran was another important step made possible through the new proactive foreign policy approach that has been adopted by the new Iranian administration of “foresight and hope.” This process was started with the election win of the new Iranian President Dr. Hassan Rouhani in presidential elections held on June 14, 2013, which introduced a new discourse to the Iranian foreign policy. Her trip was also a follow-up to the interim nuclear agreement signed between Iran and the P5+1 group of world powers in the Swiss city of Geneva last November, which entered into effect on January 20, 2014. Her trip was also a result of the meetings that Dr. Rouhani, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and members of Iran's nuclear negotiating team have had with representatives of the member states of the P5+1 group.

Therefore, there is no doubt that Ashton’s visit has taken place following a series of important and continuous steps that have been taken by the Iranian foreign policy apparatus during the past months. The important point is that the general course taken by the Iranian foreign policy is directed toward more opening in foreign relations with the important countries of the world, including with the member states of the European Union. As a result, during the few months that have passed since the election of Rouhani as Iran's new president, no new anti-Iran resolutions or sanctions have been adopted by the European Union, the United States or even the United Nations Security Council.

The visit to Iran by Ashton and her accompanying delegation can open a new chapter in cooperation between the European Union and Iran. It is true that from the viewpoint of the European Union (EU), this trip is an outcome of the Union’s progress in dealing with one of the most important and the most sensitive cases handled by the global community, namely, Iran's nuclear case.

A litmus test

As a result, the visit is also a litmus test for the success of the common foreign policy of the EU member states. Therefore, finding a final solution to this 10-year-old case [which was put on the agenda of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) through a report by the IAEA's former Director General Mohamed ElBaradei], and improvement of bilateral relations with the Islamic Republic are of special importance not only to the EU alone, but also to the entire Western world and the UN Security Council.

On the other hand, the visit to Iran by Ashton put a practical and official end to the ban that all high-ranking European officials had observed with regard to visiting the Islamic Republic of Iran. The ban almost started at the outset of the ninth Iranian administration and continued until quite recently. As a result of Ashton’s trip, no high-ranking political official of the European countries will observe such a ban with regard to visiting Iran anymore. Also, it would be possible for the high-ranking Iranian and European officials to reciprocate visits to each other’s capitals in the near future.

Ashton’s visit to Iran can, thus, be considered as the beginning of a new process which can lead to the expansion of relations between Iran and the European Union in all fields. Of course, it should be noted that development of the Islamic Republic of Iran's relations with the EU will not take place overnight and the wall of distrust that exists between the two sides should be taken down in the course of time. No relations, in fact, will be improved overnight. International relations can be only made better and grow within the context of a variety of issues.

Ashton’s visit, however, can facilitate the forthcoming comprehensive and final negotiations over Iran's nuclear energy program. Holding negotiations in Iran with the highest-ranking Iranian officials is per se a telltale sign of the importance that the EU and the P5+1 group attach to negotiations with the Islamic Republic.

Testing Iran's will and readiness

At the same time, it should be noted that Ashton’s visit to Iran was also aimed at testing the Islamic Republic of Iran's will and readiness for finding a final solution to its nuclear case. This case has not only left its mark on Iran's relations with the West, but the entire relations between Iran and the EU, as a major economic and political bloc in the world, also depend on it. It seems that Ashton has been trying to convey the message to the Islamic Republic that the EU and all its 28 member states are willing for a new round of cooperation to begin with the Islamic Republic.

However, to do this, final negotiations on Iran's nuclear case should first reach a conclusive result. After that, the outlook for further expansion of EU’s relations and cooperation with the Islamic Republic will be quite positive. This point was totally evident in the remarks made by Michael Mann, Ashton’s spokesman, after Ashton had left Iran.

At the same time, let’s not forget that there are still other obstacles on the way of further expansion of Iran's relations with the European Union, the most notable of which is, perhaps, issues related to human rights in Iran. I, however, believe that such issues should not be considered a serious impediment to development of bilateral relations. Of course, we must engage in dialogue with the European Union, but we must be also aware that the issue of human rights is one of the main foreign policy tools used by the EU which the Union applies to relations with all countries of the world.

The European Union is a soft power bloc which uses negotiations and consultations as its main tools. The issue of human rights is an indispensable part of all cooperation agreements that the European Union has signs with various countries of the world. Therefore, this issue is not exclusive to Iran and it is appropriate for us to resume human rights dialogue with the EU again.

The goals and scope of Ashton’s visit to the Islamic Republic go far beyond an ordinary visit by a high-ranking foreign official or foreign minister to Iran. In international relations, some visits and trips are just too important to be simply analyzed within framework of bilateral relations between two players because they also affect other countries as well as regional and international players. Ashton’s visit to Iran was one of these rare important international political exchanges.

A new outlook

Her trip can delineate a new outlook for collaboration between the two sides. During past months, we have seen frequent visits to the Islamic Republic of Iran by political, economic, trade, and parliamentary delegations from various European countries. Big trade delegations as well as foreign ministers of many European countries have already traveled to Iran or are scheduled to do so in the near future.

All of them are looking forward to seeing the outcomes of Ashton’s visit to Iran, especially the final result of Iran's nuclear negotiations with the P5+1 group. Therefore, all European and Western countries are monitoring these negotiations closely in order to plan their future relations with the Islamic Republic on the basis of their results. There is no doubt that the final outcome of these negotiations will affect other countries and other regional and international players as well.

If negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 group over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear energy program reach a final result, we would be witnessing the opening of a new chapter in Iran's relations with the European Union and its member states, which would have no precedent since the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran.

* Said Khaloozadeh Ph.D. in Political Science from University of Paris, Senior Expert in European Studies & University Professor. This article was originally published on Iran Review on March16 under the headline Ashton’s Iran Visit to Open a New Chapter in Iran-EU, and is being published by arrangement with the editors of the non-partisan website. [IDN-InDepthNews – March 17, 2014]

2014 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

Photo credit: Mehr News Agency

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