Iran's Nuclear Program at the Crossroads: Greece's Role in Mediation

Greek Foreign Minister Dimitris Droutsas (L) talks with his Iranian counterpart Manouchehr Mottaki in Athens on Dec. 6, 2010.

The international talks on Iran's nuclear program that got underway in Geneva in early December amid Iranian claims that the first consignment of locally produced raw uranium has been delivered to its enrichment facility in the central province of Isfahan have produced poor results and agreed to be resumed this month.

Talks between Iran and the five-plus-one U.N. powers—namely the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain plus Germany—were stalled 14 months ago, while in June 2010 a divided U.N. Security Council imposed a fourth round of financial and commercial sanctions on Iran. Resolution 1929 has reinforced a range of economic, high-technology and military sanctions against Iran, and targeted 40 entities linked to the nation's military elite.

On current developments with regards to the Iranian nuclear program, including the impact of new sanctions on Iran, few experts express optimism that the fourth round of U.N. sanctions has the potential to put real economic pressure on Iran, suggesting the effects are still nebulous and that Iran will readily adapt to the new circumstances. There are also additional concerns that insistence on enrichment suspension is a non-starter because it is politically untenable for any Iranian politician to accept foreign-imposed conditionality on its decision making.

Thus, the main conclusion produced by the recent talks with regards to Iran's nuclear program is that dialogue and mediation have to be given an additional chance. Of the various countries that have often mediated, Greece can be a sobering alternative. Greece is well located at the crossroads of Europe, the Islamic world, the Balkans and the Mediterranean; hospitable; and acceptable to all sides.

But for any mediation to be successful, it is essential to understand Iran's current foreign and security policy choices. Tehran continues to design its foreign policy initiatives on the following central strategies: improve ties with Europe, China and India to counter U.S. threats; criticize U.S. regional policies and initiatives but align with the U.S. agenda in Iraq; and consolidate Iran's central role in the region through enhanced economic cooperation and technical superiority.

Iranians see American refusal to recognize their natural leadership role in the Persian Gulf as a key point of tension. This desire for international legitimacy and respect from the international community drives Tehran's pursuit of nuclear options. To better understand Iran's motives, it is essential to provide answers to a set of critical questions.

Why does Iran need nuclear technology if it has so much oil and gas?

The pursuit of technology does not always have to make economic sense, and the economics of producing oil for domestic consumption versus export and use of nuclear power for domestic energy is more complicated than the public debate suggests. The real issue is to find the common ground between Iranian needs and Western demands: There is agreement that Iran can have a nuclear power plant, and there is overwhelming logic to avoid confrontation; however, there is estrangement of views over Iranian uranium enrichment activities.

Why does Iran want to have nukes?

The Iranian argument is that nuclear capability would bring Iran domestic legitimacy, international acceptance and regional influence.

Who can Iran trust to help it acquire nuclear technology?

The right to acquire nuclear technology is one issue that unites the whole Iranian political spectrum. Some Iranians, however, criticize the Islamic regime for relying too much on Russia. It is estimated that at the end of the day, Moscow will drop Iran to preserve its relationship with the United States, but Iran seems not to see another attractive alternative to Russian assistance in acquiring nuclear technology.

There is widespread belief of the Iranian public that a nuclear weapon would reflect Iran's power, prestige and regional prominence, but it would not resolve issues with the United States, could encourage a regional arms race and could increase the dependence of smaller regional powers on Washington. There are even fears that a group like al Qaeda could have access to weapons resulting in nuclear terrorism.

Iran has a very young society; the majority of its population is under the age of 30, with an unemployment rate of nearly 20 percent. According to recent polls, the Iranian public shares a very open desire for the reestablishment of relations with the United States, but on an equal footing. Despite that Iran continues to remain high on the U.S. list of states sponsoring terrorism, the Obama presidency has made some open gestures for dialogue with Tehran over its arms build-up, financial support for Islamic militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, and implacable opposition to Israel and the Middle East peace process.

The United States seems to view Iran's nuclear ambitions as a major challenge, not because a nuclear-armed Iran would necessarily ever use a nuclear weapon, but because it sees Iran as a major challenge in the Middle East and it is worried about what countries around Iran might do, in terms of also deciding to pursue nuclear weapons, or at least a nuclear weapons capability. As it is evident, nuclear arms race in the Middle East is an unwelcome development not only for Washington but also for the European Union.

In this political framework, Athens can offer milestone mediation. Greece may be a small country, but diplomacy is about understanding codes and the symbols of the language. And in this sense, Athens is better trained as it was through war or peace she had a lot more contact with the Iranians.

The critical role of Greece was explicitly stressed by former Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki during his December 6 official visit to Athens during which he stated, "Greece is a very important country in the European family and can play a very important role in developing and strengthening E.U. foreign policy. In the past, Greece has supported the Tehran declaration with regard to exchange of nuclear fuel and this is of particular value to us." He continued, "The mutual trust shared by our two countries and peoples is the best capital for developing relations. Over the past 30 years, our two countries have always had constructive cooperation, whether bilaterally or trilaterally, on various regional issues."

In fact, Greece has an excellent record of mediation between Iran and the West. It was the only country in the then-15-member European Union not to recall its ambassador from Tehran due to a German court verdict related with the Mykonos case in 1997, which revealed a connection between the Iranian government and the assassination of political opponents to the Iranian regime in Germany. The verdict ended the E.U.-Iran "critical dialogue" aimed to moderate Iran through negotiations on issues such as its nuclear program, human rights record and terrorism. Greece was the only E.U. country at the time that disagreed with the policy of isolating Iran and maintained its embassy in the Iranian capital representing E.U. interests.

Undoubtedly, Greece repeatedly brought Iran in from the cold. The first European Union defense minister to visit Iran since the Islamic revolution in 1979 was then-Greek Defense Minister Akis Tsohatzopoulos. The purpose of the four-day official visit of June 1999 was to exchange views on issues of mutual interest and to exploit opportunities to develop bilateral cooperation in the defense sector. At that time, Iran perceived Greece as intermediary to strengthen its ties with other NATO countries.

Also, the importance given by Iran to the role of Greece, as an E.U. member-state, to mediate with the European Union towards attracting investors was evident and credible. During the 1999 official visit of then Greek President Konstantinos Stephanopoulos, who inaugurated the Greek-Iranian economic forum, the Iranian leadership asked the help of Greece to deliver to the European Union Tehran's credibility concerning its international accords, and stressed the need to promote private initiative. Additionally, the Greek government successfully mediated and contributed to the release of 13 Iranians of Jewish origin accused of conspiracy against Iran in 2000. The trial was heard in Revolutionary Court, the branch of Iran's legal system that deals with political and moral crimes, and crimes involving national security.

More than any other country in the West, E.U.-member Greece was also the conduit for Iran to voice its views on Afghanistan, where it exerts significant influence through the country's Shiite Muslim minority. In fact, the Greek leadership delivered messages during the U.S.-led military campaign against Afghanistan in 2001. The visit by George Papandreou, then foreign minister, to Tehran at the behest of then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was important. What came out from the visit was not only that Iran was intent on playing a full role in a post-Taliban Afghanistan, but also, Tehran agreed to allow Afghanistan-bound U.S. food and aid to be distributed through its ports.

By being a bridge between Iran and the European Union, Greece can help smooth the way for closer relations between Washington and Tehran. Greece can urge dialogue between Iran and the West; a consensus, however, on modalities of timing, level (special representative, ambassadorial, or track-II diplomacy), or approach (grand bargain with all issues on the table or limited topics with the emphasis on first dealing with simpler issues to build confidence) is a major prerequisite.

The benefits of mediation for Athens can be multi-fold. Mediation can establish Greece as the critical player in this process. The contacts emerging from official diplomatic and political on the upper echelons or unofficial track-II meetings can be translated into practical measures when necessities of state demand.

Not least, the attitude of several governments toward Greece can be deeply affected by a successful mediation and the relationships developed from them. The way that such the United States, Israel, Iran, Iraq, the European Union and other governments can deal with Athens as if it were the hub of the Middle East, is critical so that Greece can re-emerge as a major geopolitical player in the entire region.

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