The role of Iran nuclear negotiations in the Mediterranean

Vienna talks between Iran and the P5+1 (permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany), ended in November 2014, have been considered a significant advance as they came after a long line of failed attempts to negotiate lasting costs on Iranian activities. However, the terms to conclude an agreement have been extended until the end of June, with the aim to find a political agreement within March and a definitive conclusion by July.

The main reason for this delay is the difficulty to reach a compromise over Iran’s nuclear program. In particular, there have been two focal elements during the negotiation, namely the scale of a future Iranian nuclear program and the speed by which international sanctions would be lifted. The terms of the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) have been maintained and the nuclear program has been frozen in its current State. The States are going to meet each other at regular intervals in order to define the technical questions that prevented from reaching a definite agreement.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was glad of the results of the negotiation. “During the talks in Vienna many gaps were narrowed and our positions with the other side got closer”, Rouhani stated on Iranian State television. This declaration is in line with the policy that Rouhani is carrying out from his election. After the end of the negotiation, Masoumeh Ebtekar, Vice President of the Islamic Republic of Iran and Head of the Department of Environment, has spoken at a conference held on 26th November 2014 at the Italian Society for International Organization (SIOI), in Rome. The Vice President asserted that Rouhani’s election has been a turning point in the country. As a matter of fact, even if they took place in “a very tendentious” atmosphere, these elections were a sign of change in Iran. Thanks to the new moderate foreign policy, the Iranian position has been strengthened considerably in the regional context since May 2013, when Rouhani’s mandate has started. Ebtekar described the negotiations as a crucial point and, during the conference “Spirit of dialogue and our journey to perfection”, she emphasized that talking about the need to let Iran collaborate on the special global goal: peace. Only collaboration could bring harmony and peace in the international community. This is the reason why negotiations were so important for Iran and why Ebtekar’s speech was aimed at talking about sanctions. The Vice President defined them as “illegal and unjust” not only for Iran but also even for the global economy, which would have the opportunity to raise and reach great results through this collaboration.

Italy seems to be a vital for Iran. The President Rouhani and the Vice President Ebtekar have described Italy as the “gateway to Europe, linked to Iran by an alliance of civilizations”. Despite the sanctions imposed and approved by the European Union, Italy maintained its economic and trade relationship with Iran in the following years. Trade relations have grown more and more from 2004 and they have reached the “historical maximum” in 2011. 2009 was the year of a strong fall of the exchanges due to the international economic crisis. In 2011, the amount of commercial trade between Iran and EU was about €26 billion. More of the 25% of this amount was linked to Italy; in 2012 the amount substantially decreased because of the strengthening of the sanctions imposed by EU and this had an impact on the Italian relations, too. In 2013, the amount was about €6 millions and more than €1 million came from Italy; during 2014, the amount has been more or less the same compared to the past year, according to the available data from January to August.

According to the data provided by the Italian-Iranian Chamber of Commerce for Industry, Italy and Germany are the only two European countries with significant volumes of exports towards Iran. Italy remains the second EU provider for Iran greatly detaching the other States. Looking at the imports, Italy is second only to German and the Italian export volumes are near the 2013 one.

Since 20th January 2014, some restrictive measures were suspended, and on 25th November 2014 the EU has extended until 30th June 2015 the suspension. So it is possible for the EU Member States to import petrochemical intermediates and to trade in gold and precious metals again. The data of the first 8 months of 2014 are a clear demonstration of that positive influence, and for this reason Italy is now the first EU importer from Iran.

The relations between Iran and the Mediterranean States show that Iran is very important for the Mediterranean economy, security and diplomacy.

Rich of natural and social resources, Iran holds a strategic position in the region. If it is important to reach stability in the Mediterranean area, it is not easy to build a path of peace and to maintain it without including Iran in this project. Iran could be the ideal interlocutor for the peace process: it is one of the main actors that can act positively to change and complete the process of regional peace.

Iran seems to be the ideal correspondent to start the dialogue with other States in the Middle East. During these months, Iran has been playing an important role against the advance of the Islamic State (IS). Rouhani has strongly stressed the Iranian interest in the fight against terrorism. Quds force, the special forces unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, leading the extraterritorial operations, has given assistance to the Iraqi Regular Army and has been crucial to regained jihadists’ positions. We can just mention the liberation of Baji, Jalawla, Saadiya. The forces that contribute to make the situation really dangerous are more than a few. The jihadists, especially the Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) group linked to al-Qaeda, succeeded to attack vulnerable targets and energy infrastructures and this demonstrates that the jihadists have an operative capacity to take Syria under their control and to extend the borders of the Caliphate. Western States have to face with a new kind of terrorism. The novelties concern its territorial basis, its integration capacity, a new media strategy and the existence of common enemies between the various groups. In this respect, besides the Western world as a whole, even a moderate Islamic State is seen as a threat to be eliminated. JN is the leader of transversal operations run by groups such as Jaish al-Islam (JL) and Ahrar al-Asham (HASI). The rivalries between the rebels are one of the reasons why IS has not built a unified front against the Syrian government yet and it has not succeeded in the consolidation of the results reached so far, such as the attack in Lebanon. Lebanese militaries could be a special leveraging tool for the rebels and from this point of view the proximity between Lebanon and Iran is also important to be understood. The State is a really central point of access to the Oriental Mediterranean. Linked to this kind of aspect is that Iranian influence in Lebanon is conducted through Hezbollah, that is what we can call an institutionalized actor in Lebanese political issues. This connection has given Iran the possibility to wield a real power to decide on Lebanese policy operations. Some agreements can be a really clear example of this strong connection: the one for the access to the Mediterranean Sea through Suez and the one for the construction of oil pipelines and refineries inside the Lebanese borders.

It is also very important to consider the relations between Syria and Iran looking at the Mediterranean Sea and at Lebanon. Regarding the Mediterranean Sea, in 2011, Syria and Iran reached an agreement for the construction of a naval base in the Latakia port, in front of Cyprus. This has been seen as a clear demonstration of the expansion of Iran in the Mediterranean area.

The triangular relations between Syria, Iran and Lebanon is extremely important for the new development of the situation in the Middle East area.

Iran’s primary objective is to overcome international isolation, as it demonstrated through its foreign policy over the last years. Iran might probably have some difficulties to succeed in its objective, as Republicans took over the U.S. Senate and might request the imposition of new sanctions against Iran. This is a controversial issue, as the economic sanctions negatively affects the access to the international market, to the investments or technology, but it does not prevent countries from using other expedients in order to pursue their economic goals. For instance, we can mention the contracts signed by Iranian governments with China for the natural gas extraction from the Pars South site in 2009. Sanctions sometimes have tended to strengthen rather than weakening the domestic position of the targeted government or groups.

On the other hand, unilateral sanctions by a powerful State such as the United States can be effective in dissuading companies from other countries from backfilling for fear of the potential effect on international business opportunities. The EU imposed sanctions against Iran, namely trade sanctions for import and export activities and blockage of financial transactions with Iranian banks. During the recent years, the Mediterranean basin have become the core of a number of political, economic and social changes, and the EU has taken on a central role in reducing tension in this area. It is not easy to build a path of peace, but a possible new equilibrium in the Mediterranean region is necessary to reach and ensure its security and stability. It is impossible to achieve them without including Iran. The EU needs to rethink its strategic position towards Iran.


Master’s degree in Political Science and International Relations (Sapienza University of Rome)

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