May 28, 2015
As a June 30 deadline for a deal on Iran's nuclear program approaches, casual observers of the talks might be forgiven for thinking that this is mostly a duel between U.S. and Iranian negotiators.

But without the participation of the so-called E-3 – Britain, France and Germany – nuclear diplomacy with Iran would probably never have gotten to this point and might not have happened at all.

At an event on Tuesday at the Atlantic Council the British, French and German ambassadors to the U.S. described Europe's pivotal role in the talks and in enforcing the economic sanctions that contributed to the emergence of a more flexible Iranian stance.

French ambassador Gerard Araud was particularly vehement when he complained about the perception of some Americans that Europeans are only going through the motions of negotiating in their eagerness to return to Iranian markets.

"We made the sacrifice, not you," Araud said referring to European Union enforcement of sanctions that caused real suffering to European companies and workers. American businesses largely quit the Iranian market two decades ago because of an embargo on U.S. trade and investment imposed by the Clinton administration and so have been less impacted by the latest restrictions, he said.

"We, not you, lost a lot of money," Araud said. "So stop taking the moral high ground... We have done a very tough job in a very loyal way."

The E-3 began the diplomacy with Iran in 2003 after the revelation that Iran was secretly building a uranium enrichment plant at Natanz. Many Europeans worried that the George W. Bush administration, which had just invaded Iraq, would also attack Iran. Iran agreed to suspend uranium enrichment while the talks with the E-3 proceeded, although other elements of the program continued.

The Bush administration attitude toward the European effort was initially lukewarm at best. Philip Gordon, a top foreign policy official in Democratic administrations, described the view of those in charge of U.S. foreign policy at the time toward the talks as one of "malevolent neglect."

A European diplomat told this reporter that John Bolton, then the undersecretary of State in charge of arms control and international security, once fell asleep or pretended to at a meeting to which he had summoned the E-3 negotiators to brief him in 2004.

Bush changed policy in his second term when his new Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, informed him that Europeans were seeing the U.S. as a major impediment to Iran diplomacy. Still, the Europeans did most of the heavy lifting until 2008, when then undersecretary of State for political affairs, William Burns, was allowed by Washington to attend a meeting in Geneva with the Iranians and Europeans plus the Russians and Chinese, who joined the process in 2006.

Even after Barack Obama became president in 2009, real progress eluded the negotiators until the 2013 election of Hassan Rouhani as Iranian president, replacing the more hardline Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Rouhani was Iran's chief nuclear negotiator between 2003 and 2005.

The change in Iranian personnel and policy, complemented by a greater U.S. willingness to talk bilaterally with the Iranians, led to an initial breakthrough in November 2013 on an interim agreement, a political understanding April 2 on the parameters for a long-term deal and the intensive negotiations that are proceeding now with the goal of reaching a conclusion by June 30.

At Tuesday's event, Araud, German ambassador Peter Wittig and British ambassador Sir Peter Westmacott said none of their governments were about to accept a bad deal with Iran, but one which would relieve sanctions gradually in return for verifiable curbs on the Iranian nuclear program.

In contrast to what some Iranian officials – including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – have been saying, the ambassadors said that sanctions relief would happen gradually and only after Iran implements major elements of a deal restricting its nuclear activities.

Wittig predicted that "in the best case, sanctions relief would not happen before the end of this year."

Westmacott cautioned against taking comments by Khamenei and others that Iran would not permit inspection of military installations, for example, too literally, noting the importance of public opinion on all sides.

"Each side is busy explaining why what it has agreed to so far is a good thing," he said. "Nobody's going to say 'I capitulated. This is a lousy deal.' "

Araud described negotiations over a "snapback" provision for sanctions that would deprive the Russians and the Chinese – the other members of the negotiations with Iran – from the potential to block a quick re-imposition of sanctions if that was supported by the other three permanent members of the UN Security Council – the U.S., France and Britain.

Araud also predicted a "melodramatic" climax to the talks with the toughest issues left to the foreign ministers of the six countries and a possible "fuzzy end to the negotiations" which, he said, might go on beyond the June 30 deadline.

Asked what would happen if there is no agreement, the ambassadors said that it depends on which side is seen as most at fault.

"We should not harbor any allusions about the international sanctions regime," if the U.S. is blamed more, Wittig said. "I think many of the emerging countries would consider Congress blocking this deal as maybe as a trigger to at least question the present sanctions regimes ... So I would see a certain danger if the blame game in the international community comes to the conclusion that it's not Iran that is to blame. And the international solidarity that has been quite strong in the recent years would most probably erode."

Westmacott added that "if we were to walk away or if the Congress was to make it impossible for the agreement to be implemented ... I think the international community would be pretty reluctant, frankly, to contemplate a ratcheting up further of the sanctions against Iran. My sense is that we're probably not far away from the high watermark of international sanctions against the Iranian economy..."

Note: Barbara Slavin moderated the discussion at the Atlantic Council

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