An EU diplomatic ‘bâdgir’ in Vienna: The Iran nuclear deal 2.0

When things get hot, you look to cool them down. Persian culture is too familiar with heat with scorching Middle East temperatures. One of the most effective ancient technologies, deployed by Persians to combat the heat was the bâdgir or wind catcher.

Located on building tops, Bâdgirs work by funneling hot air below throughout the building interior, over pools of water, forcing warmed air to rise and exit. As the EU and parties, continue nuclear negotiations in Vienna with Iran, Berlaymont officials should be looking for diplomatic inspiration from this engineering marvel to ensure regional tensions don’t intensify. 

Like any construction site, builders need a blueprint to visualize the final structure. For Enrique Mora, EEAS deputy secretary-general, and lead negotiation official, the EU’s top priority should be restoring predictability and stability to a fractured regional security architecture. For any chance of success, the EU needs to build collaborative compromise, to agree on a new ultra-elastic and shock-resistant framework that the Iranians can trumpet back home. 

Despite former President Hassan Rouhani’s efforts to engage the West, the Trump Administration’s unfounded decision to pull out of the JCPOA remains adversely transformational. The decision has left both average Iranians and moderates feeling burnt. Undoubtedly, it was a struggle to temporarily quell the hardline voices to accept the original JCPOA conditions, but now with President Ebrahim Raisi running shotgun, the search for concessions will be both painful and expensive for the EU to extract. Politically, the Iranians cannot accept a deal that is not substantially more advantageous. 

The EU and those legitimately interested in a deal will have to accept this fact and the leverage Iran wields. The current Iranian delegation can walk away from the table in Vienna without consequences, compared to former times. Thankfully, the EU and the E3 (Germany, France, Britain) sit at the table with some credibility as honest brokers, having a deployed INSTEX, to facilitate trade during America’s withdrawal. While not a gamechanger, every modicum of political capital the EU can use to advance their position is critical. With Iran’s economy in freefall, immediate sanction relief is the strongest inducement Mora’s team can push to convince Iran to stay talking.

From Washington’s perspective, this leverage will be hard to swallow as negotiations progress. The Biden Administration has made the return to the deal a top foreign policy priority, and need a PR win badly, given the current Afghanistan debacle. Like the EU, Washington is seeking more regional security stability to devote more resources towards Asia. Given the open wound, Iran is not inclined to give Robert Malley, the US’ special envoy for Iran, any special treatment. The tough love approach cuts both ways, as Malley will be reluctant to give up sanctions relief to Raisi hardliners without some major security guarantees. 

While the original JCPOA framework focused exclusively on nuclear issues, expanding its content to include Iran’s miscreant regional activity will almost be a non-starter for Iran who see these issues as disconnected. Pressure to expand the content of any agreement grows given escalating nature of Iran’s shadow war with Israel. A new change in government in Jerusalem has brought no new policy position vis-à-vis Tehran. Prime Minister Naftali Bennet is vehemently against any deal providing resources for Iranian troublemaking or its nuclear program. While assuaging Israel is not part of the formal process, it is a dynamic the EU will have to deal with in the background. Furthermore, the deaths of a Briton and a Romanian by an alleged Iran drone attack in the Arabian Sea, give no reason for either the US or the E3 to abandon this line item.

Although the EU would like to address Iran’s regional statecraft, to get any deal over the finish line they should focus on persuading America to accept less comprehensive language on the issue or separate the item completely in a new framework to help foster some initial regional CBMs. 

An especially tricky segment of the talks will involve Russia. On the surface, Moscow has always lobbied for a deal, but there are inherently ulterior motives. Getting a new deal signed would be a great international photo opportunity for the Kremlin that would shift adverse attention away from Nord Stream 2 and the Crimean Platform.

In reality, Moscow would still prefer Tehran tethered. Given Iran’s pariah international status, Russia recognizes their dependency on it for technology transfers and arms. It goes against Russia’s strategic interest to have Iran fully re-enter the global community, especially with the EU, unless it’s under their terms. Moreover, Russia has no immediate reason to reign in extracurricular Iranian behavior in the region, or contribute to stability, as it profits their broader Syria agenda. When taken together, enough factors lend credence to Russia torpedoing any deal that threatens its interest, where the EU has little recourse to respond. 

The same Russian mindset of exploitation extends to China, which profits from having a weak Iran. A crippled economy allows China to extract favorable energy terms on contracts and leverage other geopolitical items. Beijing is already pursuing a de-dollarization strategy that favors the yuan, so failure to reach a deal would not be cataclysmic. Like Russia, incentivizing China to get on board could come in the form of good press that would offer a respite from their overburdened wolf warrior diplomacy and COVID-19. 

As negotiations endure, the EU should prepare for deferred maintenance on their diplomatic bâdgir. While the blueprint for regional security architecture is clear and obtainable, a game of patience involving give and take remains under construction in Vienna. Whether it be the desire for stability, prestige, or funds, a pathway for a new Iran deal is feasible. If ancient Persia was able to build their bâdgirs, so too can the EU today.

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