Iran: good cop/bad Europe? (HAFEZ)

by D.R. HAFEZ – 14th April 2015


The latest round in the Iranian-P5 +1 negotiations has given new hope to the possibility that Iran comes in from the cold somewhat in exchange for a more open nuclear program and the abandoning of the military or weaponised aspiration of their nuclear capability. The negotiations captivated the world’s media – down to very personal descriptions of the toys given by Ernest Moniz to his Iranian counterpart for his grandson. However, one aspect remains shrouded in a certain amount of mystery – that of the European powers’ role in the deal, and in particular, the hard line adopted by the French delegation. The question remains – was this just another “good cop, bad cop” routine, or was there something else at stake?

Europe as the bad cop, the USA as the good cop for a change

Ever since President Obama was handed his Nobel Peace Prize, there has been a sense of expectation – the nuclear negotiation with Iran is undoubtedly Obama’s envisioned legacy, and for once, his tactic to “lead from behind” has meant that the US was considered slightly less invasive than before. True, the economic sanctions that have hit Iran over the last few years have seriously dented its internal health, as have the repeated assaults led by Saudi Arabia on oil prices to make sure that the hated Shi’a neighbour could not capitalise on its vast and underexploited underground treasure-trove. These factors no doubt contributed to the Iranian willingness to sit down at the negotiating table and engage in more than diplomatic platitudes. It is also certainly true that the format of the negotiations worked in their favour – on the fore front were scientists who did not have to explain to the neophyte a particularly tricky physics phenomenon. In short, they spoke the same language. However, it certainly looked from the outside as if the US had adopted the good cop routine, whilst Europe had the perhaps more ungrateful role of taking a hard-line approach. However, all is not as simple.

Saving private Bibi, an indispensable cause

One of the most defiant and obvious losers in this whole affair is the newly re-elected Mr. Netanyahu – not only did he risk incurring the wrath of the US President by speaking in front of the Congress, but his previous UN declaration, where he famously held up a diagram of Iran’s warpath to nuclear capability, has fallen on somewhat muffled ears. Yes the US were quick to point out that defending their ally in the Middle East was still a priority, but it would be naïve to see in the Iran agreement anything else than a bitter blow to the Israeli (and US) hard-line stance. By taking a harder line, and being vocally praised by the Israeli tabloids, France and Europe could at least (in consultation with the US of course) give some incentive to the Israeli government to not “go it alone”, which would potentially be disastrous for the stability of the region.

Not so fast there young padawan Rohani

Iran is indisputably in an upward spiral (at least in terms of foreign policy) – as the Yemeni conflict intensifies and Saudi Arabia finds itself in a deadly bog after years of a less pro-active stance, Iran on the other hand seems to be sailing smoothly – too smoothly perhaps. Whether it be in Iraq, in Syria or in Yemen, it is imperative that Iran must not be made to feel too comfortable too soon. Having an appeased Iran in the region is a godsend, having a supremely confident Iran could spell danger. By taking a hard line, Europe is able to send just the right international signal of prudent optimism. Rohani may be an experienced political operator (he was once heavily involved himself in the negotiation process), yet he must be made to feel as though he must earn his gold stars.

“I told you so”, a useful tool to have in one’s diplomatic arsenal

Diplomacy is in many ways like politics- the aim of the game is to maintain a veneer of respectability and ethical coherence whilst at the same time having the luxury of switching opinions whenever the interests of the country or entity demand it. To put it simply, if an Iranian nuclear deal went sour, France and Europe could always tut-tut with a patronising expression and proclaim that they always knew such a calamity would happen. On the other hand, should the deal hold true, no-one will dare criticise a prudent approach to it. In either case, the rewards are perhaps less spectacular, but so are the disappointments and public humiliations.

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