Can Italy become a major player in Iran?

Over the past three years, Italy has lacked an influential role in the Iranian dossier. But since Mario Draghi’s government came to power – and Joe Biden’s administration shifted gears on Iran – Italy has signaled that, once again, it wants to be among the key players on this issue. crucial but complex question. Whether he succeeds will depend on the steps he is prepared to take.

A dissident Europe

Since 2018, the so-called E3 countries (France, Germany and the United Kingdom) have pursued a policy towards Iran that aims to preserve the 2015 nuclear deal (also known as the JCPOA, or Plan d ‘ joint global action), notwithstanding the US Withdrawal and Reimposition of Sanctions. Together with former EU High Representative Federica Mogherini, the three main European countries considered the agreement “ a key achievement of the global nuclear non-proliferation architecture ”, dissociating itself from the measures adopted by the United States under former President Donald Trump during its’ maximum pressure campaign against Iran.

Between 2019 and 2020, E3 took several steps to ensure the agreement’s survival. Chief among them was the creation of INSTEX, a clearinghouse that was supposed to facilitate legitimate trade with Iran despite US sanctions, but which has remained largely ineffective.

Another milestone was the launch of EMASOH, the European-led maritime surveillance mission in the Strait of Hormuz. The initiative, led by France, aimed to complement existing maritime security efforts while avoiding any connection to the United States-led mission (the IMSC, or International Maritime Security Construct) and the pressure campaign. maximum of Washington. The aim was to reduce tensions in the Gulf between Iran, the United States and its allies in the region.

Italy’s low profile during Conte’s governments

Italy’s role in both initiatives was minimal: unlike other EU states, and despite the commitment of the then Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, to “ strengthen the financial mechanism of the ‘EU’, Italy never became a member of INSTEX, arguing that the mechanism is unlikely to succeed in improving legitimate trade with Iran, but also seeing it as too provocative towards the United States. On EMASOH, while Rome decided to support the mission politically, it did not provide any in-kind contributions, such as frigates or staff officers – unlike Denmark, the Netherlands and Greece.

The choice to keep a low profile on Iran was motivated by the reluctance of the former Italian government to join with other EU countries in taking a different – and sometimes confrontational – stance on the United States, even if it was a question of defending an agreement that Italy itself considered to be its security interests.

There was also an element of ideological solidarity in this position. During his visit to the United States in June 2019, then Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the right-wing League party Matteo Salvini said that “ Italy’s relations with Tehran [had] changed, because it is impossible to maintain normal relations with a country that wants to destroy Israel ”. It represented an effort to forge a common vision with the Trump administration and to distinguish Italy from other European countries. Generally speaking, however, foreign policy, including in the Middle East, was not high on the agenda of the previous Italian government – not even when it comes to security issues such as the Eastern Mediterranean and Libya, which still have been at the heart of Italian politics. strategic concerns.

A renewed interest but hesitant approaches

Over the past three months, however, Italy’s approach to foreign policy has changed. Since the new government, led by former European Central Bank President Mario Draghi, has come to power, and despite the fact that Luigi di Maio of the populist movement Five Star has remained its foreign minister, Italy has taken over part of its foreign policy. activism.

Draghi’s first trip abroad since taking office, for example, was in Libya, a testament to the importance the new government places on the country and the Mediterranean in general, unlike the administration. previous. Italy has also joined E3 and the United States in foreign policy statements on countries ranging from Iraq to Syria and Yemen, again showing a break with the past.

Regarding Iran, this new trajectory of Italian foreign policy has so far made very little difference at the public level. Relieved by the change of position of the United States vis-à-vis Iran following the election of President Biden, and after almost three years of silence, in January Italy expressed its gratitude renewed EU support for the JCPOA and said it was ready to endorse any initiative to restore the deal.

In March, behind the scenes, he offered to play the role of intermediary between Washington and Tehran on the nuclear issue. The offer was not accepted by US officials, who instead engaged in indirect talks with their Iranian counterparts in Vienna. Publicly, the actions taken by Italy have simply consisted of further declarations in favor of the agreement and efforts to facilitate its relaunch.

Lots of reach

Yet Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s visit to Rome on May 16, the second stop on an official trip to Europe and his final tour before the Iranian presidential elections, provided Italy with the first opportunity to signal its willingness to play a greater role on the Iran file beyond mere statements. On this occasion, Di Maio simply underlined the importance of the talks in Vienna and of a compromise on the JCPOA. He mentioned the interests of Italy in the development of bilateral relations in the political, economic and cultural fields, but without any concrete suggestion on how to do it, leaving the declaration of intent somewhat moot.

There are areas where Italy can make a difference and it should start working actively on them if it is to be a key player in Iran. It can, for example, facilitate a regional dialogue on security, potentially through the diplomatic component of the EMASOH mission, which aims to “ identify the means of defusing tensions and promoting the building of confidence in the maritime domain. by engaging with countries in the region. and participating members of EMASOH.

This is particularly important in the stages following a possible agreement on the JCPOA and is a key priority for all States concerned. Rome could also invest its political capital in trying to relaunch the E4 talks, which have stalled since late 2019 but which, until then, have allowed Italy – with E3 – to engage with the ‘Iran on regional issues at the level of political directors.

In anticipation of the prospect that the negotiations in Vienna will result in a compromise on the nuclear deal, Italy should also explore ways of putting in place lines of credit and guarantees for exports to Iran, modeled on the of the main credit agreement between Invitalia Global Investment and Iranian banks. announced in 2016. This would facilitate the resumption of trade between Iran and Europe following the lifting of sanctions. Finally, Italy should explore ways to make INSTEX-type mechanisms more effective in the future, preparing for the possibility that a future US administration adopts a policy diverging from that of the EU and increasing the chances that such instruments can enable legitimate and lasting economic ties – and not just with Iran, but with all the countries that Europe sees in its interest, whatever the position of the United States.

Without any of these steps, and despite Prime Minister Draghi’s efforts to make Italy a major player on the international stage, Italy is unlikely to make a difference on the Iranian dossier and instead continue to linger. on the sidelines.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

BANNER IMAGE: Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi. Courtesy of Reuters / Alamy Stock Photo

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