EU initiates talks to engage Iran on trade, security

  • 2002-12-12
  • Stefan Smith

The European Union will Dec. 12 kick off what will be the most ambitious Western effort yet to engage Islamic Iran, with discussions on increased trade linked to thorny political issues.

As EU and Iranian officials sit down for negotiations on a trade and cooperation agreement in one room, delegates in another will be broaching sensitive topics including terrorism, human rights, weapons proliferation and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"It's not just about Iran selling more pistachios," was how one European ambassador put it. "For progress to be made in one room, there has to be progress in another."

But the inaugural two days of talks in Brussels, which herald a shift in EU-speak from "critical dialogue" to "constructive dialogue," are expected to go smoothly.

First, the EU does not share the U.S. view that Iran is part of an "axis of evil" and is keen to shore up Iran's embattled reformers. And Iran's hard-liners understand that the EU is one of the things standing in the way of Washington targeting Tehran in the ever-widening "war on terror."

"It goes without saying that if there were no reformists, there would be no dialogue," another European ambassador said in the Iranian capital.

Second, economic considerations are a major driving force in the relationship, with European (especially French, Italian, Spanish and German) companies seeking greater access to the Iranian market in anticipation of being squeezed out of Iraq by the U.S. and Britain following a war to oust Sadism Hussein - according to several oil, gas and auto industry sources.

The EU, therefore, has a long-term approach and is not looking for tangible results overnight, a stance that also suits Iran.

But what the EU would like to see in the short-term is a "change of tone" from Tehran on a number of issues.

"For example, condemning suicide bombings - such as the attacks in Kenya - would be a good start," said one European diplomat.

On the Middle East, Iran is also being asked to acknowledge Israel's right to exist and "join the international consensus backing a two-state solution", even though diplomats agree that the issue is complicated by the impression that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is not playing ball either.

Diplomats said nuclear proliferation has also been shoved up the agenda, especially since Sept. 11. The EU also wants Iran to sign up to international treaties, such as conventions covering torture and weapons proliferation.

Then there is the touchy issue of human rights: ideally, the EU would like to see a moratorium on executions by stoning as well as public hangings, as well as more judicial transparency.

But EU diplomats are under no illusions that even these are fairly lofty objectives, given that Iran's reformist government conducting the talks with the EU has little influence over the hard-line-controlled judiciary, and any legislation it passes is subject to being shot down by conservative oversight bodies.

"We are not U.N. weapons inspectors pointing out violations of international law," emphasized an EU diplomat. "We want to engage, nurture debate, nurture changes."

For its part, Iran is particularly keen to present the talks as of equal interest.

"The relations between Iran and European countries will benefit both sides, therefore the EU cannot set preconditions for ties with the Islamic Republic," said Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid-Reza Asefi.

He said the EU "should understand our sensitivities and avoid setting preconditions or prejudgments."

As for the trade deal itself, EU diplomats said it could be "approximately modeled" on what was signed with Pakistan in November 2001 - and that took five years to negotiate.

Aside from the side-by-side political dialogue, a trade deal could also contain clauses touching on human rights, good governance, intellectual property rights and reduced tariffs.

And for quick impact aid packages to be delivered, Iran will also need to provide unprecedented access to donor agencies.

"Everyone wants the Brussels talks to get off to a good start, so the more sensitive issues will not be touched on just yet," said a diplomat in Tehran.

A European source in Brussels said the Dec. 12 talks were merely aimed at setting the "pace of negotiations."

They will be followed by political talks in Tehran on Dec. 16-17.

"The first difficult period will be between the December talks and the talks early next year, possibly in February," a source close to the talks said, noting the need for the EU to formulate a common position ahead of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.