EU-Iran rapprochement could give Greece new opportunities to promote bilateral ties

International concern over Iran’s nuclear program is rising. Even so, the building tensions also offer a potentially positive challenge for Greece’s foreign policy, specifically an opportunity to upgrade Greek-Iranian relations and a chance for Athens to help ameliorate the strained atmosphere between the European Union and Tehran. The issue also gives Greece a chance to break with the perception that prevailed during the Simitis governments of 1996-2004, by which Greek policy was characterized by inaction and hesitancy and where Greece kept a respectable distance and lacked any particular role to play. The Simitis governments not only whittled away the huge political capital Greece once enjoyed in the Arab world, but were latecomers in perceiving Libya’s changed attitude toward the US and Europe, despite PASOK’s traditionally privileged relationship with that country. Messrs Blair, Berlusconi, Chirac, Schroeder and others all paid visits to Tripoli, but not the Greek prime minister. Many, particularly those who still harbor a bureaucratic mindset, might balk at the prospect of upgrading relations with Iran at a time when the Americans have not ruled out a military attack on that country. However, a more careful analysis and evaluation of all the operative factors will indicate quite different conclusions. Greece has every reason to want better relations with Tehran, primarily because 40 percent of the petroleum consumed in Greece comes from Iran. So Athens has every reason to encourage the free flow of Iranian petroleum to international markets, particularly at a time when prices are skyrocketing. Bilateral political relations are excellent – as was reconfirmed in a successful exchange of visits between the two countries’ former presidents. However, economic relations outside those connected to the oil trade remain almost non-existent. This provides enormous possibilities for immediate and spectacular development, particularly given Greece’s desperate search for new markets. Still friendly The political environment in Iran is particularly friendly toward Greece, both on the part of the people and the political leadership. Iranian officials, even at the most senior level, never miss an opportunity to emphasize that Greeks are the only Europeans who understand them and communicate with them. This is an important political advantage, particularly now when Tehran is in need of an EU member that is in a position to understand its viewpoint. So at the bilateral level, both common interests and the appropriate political conditions exist for improving relations. Yet irrespective of the importance of Greek interests in Iran (because of that 40 percent), it is not clear how feasible or wise it would be to upgrade contacts with a country whose relations with the United States and the EU are getting tense. The problem becomes more critical given that the EU’s leaders, under strong pressure from Washington, appear to be gradually moving toward the US’s anti-Iranian viewpoint, which could well increase the likelihood of war. Appearances can be deceptive, however. With the exception of Britain, no other country in Europe wants Iran’s petroleum reserves to come under US control. After the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the US conquest of Iraq, Iran is the only major petroleum-producing country in the Middle East that is seen by Europe as one of the last outposts of a vestigial independence from Washington regarding petroleum supplies. The same applies to Japan, the biggest customer for Iran’s petroleum. At the moment, the Americans have military and political control of the entire petroleum reserves of the Middle East, apart from those of Iran. The result has been the current nightmare of price rises that have affected the European and Japanese economies much more than the American. So, while the Americans are using Iran’s nuclear program as an excuse to attack Tehran whenever they see fit, just as they did with Iraq, the French and the Germans are trying to nullify these arguments for a US attack. That is also why the Europeans have never agreed to impose an embargo on Iranian petroleum, despite heavy pressure from the US. Viewed in that light, any moves by Athens to improve its relations with Tehran do not in any way contradict the unspoken substance of European policy, and therefore will not meet with any opposition, apart from perhaps a few verbal reservations. In fact, better bilateral relations between Iran and EU member states would open up even more channels of Euro-Iranian cooperation and increase the perception in Europe that this is the way to improve EU-Iranian relations as a whole. Therefore a Greek undertaking to improve relations with Iran is absolutely compatible with the EU’s strategic goals that Athens can do much to advance, in proportion to the weight it carries. US tolerance The Americans are not likely to raise strong objections to such a development. Greece is a small country with no nuclear fuel or technology to sell to Iran, nor can it invest in its petroleum sector. As its relations with Tehran are less developed than those of other EU member states, it would fall within the general European orientation without seeking a leading role, so there is no objective reason for the US to put pressure on the Greek government. Some capable Greek politicians and diplomats might even be able to persuade their counterparts in Washington of the benefits to be gained by improved Greek-Iranian relations. The Greek government has no way of playing its own games in Tehran, as can other countries such as France and Germany, at a level that would interest to the White House, so the impression it gives Washington would be a more honest one. Greece could provide a less distorted channel of communication, given its lack of hostility to Iran. Even if the US is not indifferent, it will most likely be tolerant of actions to improve Greek-Iranian relations. Political will Yet for all these initiatives to be set in motion, a clear political decision is needed at the most senior level of the Greek government. A new policy toward Iran is not the charge of bureaucrats. There needs to be an expression of political will that can take into consideration the fact that Iran is a large country that plays a critical role in the world economy. It also has huge reserves of natural gas, a fuel which Europe is making greater use of. Iran wants to incorporate Greece into its supply network to European markets. It remains to be seen whether the Greek government is willing to enact a policy now to include the country in such an important move.