The EU and the Iran 'deal of the century'
06.01.14 @ 09:32
BRUSSELS - It ended with a hug. But the EU's new role in stopping decades of conflict in the Middle East has just begun.
The hug came from US secretary of state John Kerry for EU foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton in Geneva on 24 November, where she had just brokered a nuclear deal between six of the world's most powerful nations and Iran.
It helped transform her into a stateswoman with genuine gravitas.
Her moment came after five months of secret Iran-US diplomacy, which eased a 35-year-old confrontation between Washington and Tehran.
Israel's leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, dubbed it "the deal of the century."
He was being sarcastic. Israel, and some EU countries, believe Iran agreed to freeze its programme because it already has "breakout capacity" - enough knowhow and technology to make a weapon at short notice.
But Netanyahu's bombastic words fit the importance of the breakthrough.
The Middle East has been locked in conflict on two fronts: the Arab-Israeli war and Muslim sectarianism, which pits Sunni states like Saudi Arabia versus Shia countries like Iran, and which has cost tens of thousands of lives in Iraq and in Syria.
The US, Israel, Sunni states and EU countries used to be in league against what they called "the axis of evil."
But Geneva opens the door to a new Middle East in which Iran helps to end the war in Syria, in which Sunni hawks bow to Western pressure, and in which Israel is no longer free to undermine the two-state solution on Palestine.
The EU is no match for US hard power in terms of shaping events, but Ashton's foreign service is doing its bit to keep momentum going.
It is drafting plans to relax EU sanctions on Iran. It aims to launch co-operation with Iran on day-to-day issues, like drug smuggling. There is even talk of an EU embassy in Tehran.
The EU this year also imposed its first-ever sanctions on Israeli settlements.
Three days after Geneva, EU and Israeli negotiators agreed new rules on science grants which stop EU money from funding Israeli activity on occupied land.
The deal is a template for all future EU-Israel projects. It is also a wake-up call on the occupation.
"The Western world that is our frame of reference … says to us in word and deed that we will no longer be able to belong to it while continuing our control over another people," Ofer Shelah, a leading MP in Netanyahu's coalition, said.
The Middle East's old conflicts aside, the Arab Spring, which began with a self-immolation in Tunisia in 2010, has, over the past three years, seen Egypt, Libya, Mali, Syria and Yemen also go up in flames.
Despite military action in Libya and Mali and frantic shuttle diplomacy, EU countries and even the US have, for the most part, struggled to control the forces at play.
British historian David Hirst warned in 2012 that the region risks becoming "a giant failed state."
But a tweet by Ashton's spokesman at 3am in Geneva broke news to world media that an alternative future is possible: "#EU High Rep #Ashton: 'We have reached agreement between E3+3 and Iran'."
This article was printed in EUobserver's yearly magazine 'Europe in review 2013'. The print edition looks back at the most important stories of the year. To obtain a copy of the magazine, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Price per copy €4.75 + postage, excl. vat. Discounts on larger purchases.