Suddenly last week, after weeks of acrimony, arguments and threats, the dark clouds over the European Union appeared to clear slightly.
EU leaders fought off fears of a Greek exit from the Eurozone by hammering out a deal to bail out the devastated Greek economy. And finally following years of hard bargaining, international negotiators, including EU officials, clinched an agreement on curbing Iran’s nuclear programme.
Europeans’ response to the two breakthrough accords has been quite different. The deal on Greece has left a sour taste, with Europeans divided on just how much more economic pain the Greeks can and should be forced to take. In contrast, there is no rift in Europe over the accord with Iran. European governments, business and public opinion have been largely positive about prospects of a normalisation of relations with Tehran.
In fact they want more than normalisation. As was the case two years ago when Myanmar finally opened up, Europeans are anxious and eager to make their mark in Iran as quickly as possible, before the competition heats up.
European foreign ministries want to re-establish diplomatic relations with Tehran, the EU plans to open its own office, and European business leaders and investors can’t wait to enter the Iranian market.
On the geostrategic front, there are hopes that an end to Iranian isolation will change the political landscape in the Middle East by reducing power and influence of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.
True, there is also wariness of Tehran’s ambitions and role in Syria, Yemen and Iraq. But few in Europe give credence to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s quasi-hysterical rants against Tehran. And unlike in the United States, there are no major European political parties who oppose the re-establishment of relations with Iran.
The race to be the first one to visit the country has already begun. A procession of high-ranking visitors is expected to head to Tehran, with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius already saying he will go soon.
British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has said he hopes the UK and Iran can fully reopen their respective embassies by year end. Ties between the UK and Iran had plunged after the 2011 storming of the British embassy in Tehran.
And European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, who presided over the nuclear negotiations, also wants to open the first EU mission in Tehran in 2016 as part of what she hopes will be a “new chapter” in relations.
The focus is very much on the Iranian market and the country’s appetite for European exports, investments, technology and know-how after years of life under sanctions.
Europe’s interest in Iran’s oil and gas sector is high as EU nations seek to reduce their dependence on imports of Russian gas. But Europe faces tough competition from American companies, Russia and China.
Chinese analysts are already predicting a surge in trade and business flows between China and Iran and point to the contribution Beijing can make to upgrade and build Iranian infrastructure.
Iran is also widely expected to become a key participant in China’s ambitious ‘One Belt, One Road’ connectivity network linking China to other parts of Asia and Europe.
In contrast to China, EU policymakers, focused almost completely on the nuclear issue, have not yet given serious consideration to ways of upgrading ties with Tehran.
EU foreign policy chief Mogherini talks ambitiously of bringing together all key Middle East countries, including Iran, “to see if some form of regional cooperation is possible”.
While the vision of Middle East regional cooperation is noble, there is, of course, very little hope that — at least in the short to medium-term — Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries will be able to sit at the same table, much less work together.
The EU could, however, insist that Iran should be allowed to participate in the Geneva talks on ending the civil war in Syria. Tehran could also be helpful in EU efforts to build a strategy to counter the self-styled Islamic State.
Given the EU’s demands that Iran reduce the rate of executions and eradicate torture, discussions on human rights are likely to be difficult.
EU-Iran cooperation is likely to be most buoyant if the focus is on practical questions such as environmental protection, water management, infrastructure development, technology transfer, and academic and cultural exchanges.
Europe’s normalisation of relations with Iran is likely to be slow and steady as European governments and Tehran get to know each other again and step by step build trust.
Ironically, in fact, today there seems to be more trust between the EU and Iran than between Greeks and their fellow Europeans.