Policy paralysis in the West over the Iran nuclear talks

The sorry state of thinking and diplomacy on Tehran has rarely been more dangerously exposed

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With a trip to Asia last week, UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly made a commitment to the country’s strategic tilt to the Indo-Pacific.

On his travels, he may have had time to look out the window and reflect on the current state of western policy towards Iran. It is an area where he now has some experience, something that will be increasingly useful in these days of crisis on Iran’s streets, as well as the corridors of power.

The sorry state of western thinking and diplomacy on Iran has rarely been more dangerously exposed. This is all the more true as the current impasse has crept up on policymakers with few having a clue what to do next.

Mr Cleverly knows in his bones that Iran is an important challenge.

Earlier this year, the former Conservative party chairman was promoted within the foreign office to deputy foreign secretary and Europe minister. In a role previous to that, he had handled the Middle East and North Africa brief. He took the Iran portfolio with him in a move that triggered a major internal reshuffle, something that insiders say has harmed Britain's long-standing Mena policy and the country’s diplomatic impact on the wider region.

Be that as it may, the decision showed the priority that Mr Cleverly placed on managing the Iran portfolio.

At the time, Mr Cleverly, a junior minister under then foreign secretary Liz Truss, was more regularly travelling to Vienna than the Middle East. Flitting across the lobby of the Palais Coburg hotel through epic rounds of grand diplomacy on the resurrection of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action required commitment and raw negotiating skill.

By all accounts, the deal was done in Vienna at least once. At the time of the first of Mr Cleverly’s promotions this year (in the second, he became Foreign Secretary when Ms Truss became Prime Minister last month), it seemed that keeping the portfolio was all about an experienced hand overseeing the sealing of the deal.

It was not to be, and unfortunately, the cloud over the JCPOA has turned dark. From a western point of view, this diplomatic instrument was the only game in town on Iran. Quite how to recalibrate is now the elephant in the room for US and European officials, in particular.

The word is that hardliners in Iran are using the demonstrations that are racking the country, and causing new instability in Iraq, to urge the final repudiation of the 2015 deal by Iran. Again, this is rumoured manoeuvring but it is ominous nonetheless.

The death in northern Iran of Mahsa Amini, 22, who was arrested by police for allegedly not complying with strict dress codes, has seen protests well up on a scale not seen for 12 years. The generational aspect of the confrontations between the authorities and demonstrators gives an extra dimension to the events.

There have been some moves, particularly by the US administration, to acknowledge the people who are out on the streets. European governments have offered statements that show sympathy or support to those who are making demands on the government. The German, British and Norwegian ambassadors protested against various aspects of policies or providing a base for what Tehran terms hostile media.

It is something of an indictment of the UK that, just days later, the BBC announced it was shutting radio services of BBC Arabic and Persian. As the German MP Nils Schmid noted at an event in London last week, the strength of broadcasting services is something that matters in diplomacy. Mr Schmid noted that Russia’s RT news channel, which is Iran-aligned, is very strong in central Iraq, something that 20 years ago could have been said about the BBC radio feed.

As Ian Bond, foreign policy director of the UK think tank Centre for European Reform, noted in tweeted reaction to the BBC job cuts of 380 people, an important element of London’s soft power was being surgically removed. The writer Helene von Bismarck agreed, though both bemoaned the impact from a Eurocentric perspective. Mr Bond separately published a short note on Ms Truss's foreign policy challenges that did not even mention Iran.

Mr Cleverly appears to know better than this and, while new to the job, must know it is pressing that he get a grip on events. He is not alone. The other European foreign ministers and the US State Department are similarly challenged.

It is clear from the travels of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi over the summer and the readouts of the meetings he has held, that Tehran has turned to the East in its international strategy. Perhaps the events surrounding the war in Ukraine accelerated a trend that would not have otherwise surfaced to derail the JCPOA.

It is debatable what tools western countries can employ at this juncture to turn around the decline in influence that has occurred. But there is all the more reason to reshape a strategy that can be resilient and useful to the politicians and diplomats in charge of policy.

History shows there is no alternative to engagement on this vital issue. A good start would be to look again at the BBC decision to give time for a diplomatic recalibration to be thought through.

Published: October 03, 2022, 4:00 AM