Europe still vital in talks with Iran

Amid severe funding cuts to Britain's defence budget and entrenched opposition to any new war, now is the time to stress the merits of diplomacy to forestall international conflict.

As I write this, Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu is touring America to advocate military confrontation with Iran. This is his second pro-war PR tour and the second time his request has been rejected by senior US officials.

In the meantime, Iran has proposed a new round of talks with the P5+1 (the permanent members of the UN security council, plus Germany) to move the negotiations further. Britain and the EU have a pivotal role to play in these negotiations if they revert to a rather more proactive, positive diplomacy vis-à-vis Iran on the one side and the US on the other.

The position of the EU should be mediatory rather than firmly entrenched within any camp. It was former foreign secretary Jack Straw, after all, whose shuttle diplomacy contributed to Iran's voluntary suspension of nuclear enrichment activities in 2003 and the Paris agreement in 2004. With the benefit of hindsight the delayed response of the EU to Iran's goodwill gesture must be considered a missed opportunity, not least because it undermined the negotiating position of then President Khatami who was left with nothing to present to the Iranian right who were starting to gather around Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who later succeeded him as president.

The failure to follow up on some of the promises made to Khatami's administration after Iran suspended nuclear enrichment activities contributed to Iranian suspicions. For the more hawkish elements in the political establishment, this was enough "evidence" for them to dismiss Khatami's efforts. "We suspended the enrichment of uranium once, and none of the sanctions were lifted," some of the Iranians argued.

One can always discuss the merits and verity of the Iranian position, but the success of the proactive EU diplomacy, galvanised by the efforts of Straw and the British foreign office, indicates that positive mediation produces tangible results. If there is to be a dual track approach, as President Obama himself repeatedly emphasised, then surely Britain and the EU should position themselves at the forefront of the diplomatic track.

The more manoeuvring space there is in a negotiation process, research shows, the more likely there will be a solution. In that sense, the inclusion of Turkey (and potentially Brazil) in the new round of talks should be welcomed as an opportunity to open further communication channels and to enable Iranian negotiators to "sell" any viable compromise to a fiercely nationalistic constituency within the country. The nuclear issue is clearly an emblem of national pride and sovereignty in Iran, and any politician negotiating a deal has to take this into account.

At present, the odds for a proactive mediatory role for the EU are good. In Iran, the taboo of negotiating with the US directly was broken a long time ago, though it may still be easier for the negotiators to face European delegates. The fact that the Obama administration has made it unmistakably clear to Netanyahu that the US will not tolerate any unilateral Israeli military adventure targeting Iranian nuclear facilities has been noted in Tehran.

In another conciliatory gesture, the US State Department last week designated Jundollah, a group which has claimed responsibility for several bomb attacks in Iran, as a terrorist organisation.

On the other side, the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has given the green light to pursue a policy of detente with the US on equal terms. This has already led to low-level contacts, for instance over the security situation in Iraq and last month as part of the international contact group's meeting on Afghanistan.

In both strategic contexts, Iranian and EU/US interests converge. All parties support the current political process in Iraq and Afghanistan and the respective governments and all are opposed to the activities of movements affiliated to al-Qaida.

What is needed to capitalise on the current momentum, is (a) a discourse of reconciliation out of which policy initiatives emphasising diplomacy and regional peace can be spun and (b) a truly inclusive negotiating strategy that would make it possible for all parties to compromise without losing face. The role of the EU to those ends is indispensable, not least as a means to gain diplomatic clout as an independent actor in Iran and the wider west Asian area.

This week, the most recent "For Civilian Diplomacy" delegation, comprising 11 US peace activists, wrapped up their visit to the Peace Museum in Tehran. Alas, the amiable meetings proceeded without any attention from the international media.

No one should sit between the fences when it comes to war and peace. To those who are wary because of the human rights situation in Iran, I say this: the great utopia of freedom is a luxury that can only be afforded in a time of relative peace and security. Ask the people of Afghanistan and Iraq. They know better than I do that human rights, nay humanity itself, is the first casualty of any conflict situation.

Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, a lecturer in the comparative and international politics of western Asia at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.