Iran nuclear breakthrough proves EU diplomacy beats the UK's flag-waving

As I left the Foreign Affairs Committee meeting of the European Parliament alongside my Danish, French and German colleagues, I was struck by the contrast between the bumbling of Boris Johnson as the UK Foreign Secretary and the grown-up, internationalist diplomacy of the EU. My colleagues cannot believe that the UK has chosen the path it has, and frankly, neither can I.

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First published in The National, 6 September 2016

Thanks to the EU’s approach, we have vastly improved our relations with Iran. Last week we finally adopted the European Parliament’s resolution on EU-Iran relations and I, as a Scottish-European, felt proud of what we have achieved. We have, by acting together, successfully solved one of the world’s most pressing geopolitical questions, the Iran nuclear threat. Following 15 years of EU sanctions on Iran’s military nuclear programme, European diplomacy has won.

How is that?

The EU has had no boots on the ground or drones in the air. But it is the world’s top humanitarian donor and it engaged slowly and constructively in talks with the Iranian Republic to find a political rather than a military solution. Open to constructive and determined dialogue: this is the spirit of international relations in the modern age.

While Israel’s continuous threats of military intervention in Iran never worked, the EU’s diplomatic efforts have now brought back huge business benefits on top of a – relatively – more secure nuclear world: our trade with Iran has increased by 40 per cent since 2016, and remember economic and political stability often travel together.

Yes, we in Europe listened to a regime that has a terrible human rights record, but we gave a chance for diplomacy and in return the Iranians gave away their entire nuclear weapons military programme. This is not simply idle talk. The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed in its three reports that Iran has effectively stopped the building of nuclear weapons. This was achieved through mature, constructive, internationalist diplomacy, not the gunboat flag-waving that appears to be the new modus operandi at the UK Foreign Office.

No state alone could have influenced Iran, but as a collective, the EU played a key role. When the member states agree, we can work together and with one voice to be a significant force for good.

Right now what is required is for EU states such as Britain to shoulder our responsibility for our past actions, even if over a century ago, in the region. Sykes-Picot and the Balfour Declaration are not ancient history in the Middle East. The UK Foreign Office is not seen as a force for good, and frankly why should it be when the UK’s primary interest in the region appears to be increasing arms sales, not the promotion of the human rights of the populace?

The work is not yet complete, far from it. A host of issues remain: Iran’s shameless involvement in Syria to save Assad, its sectarian Shiite militiamen wreaking havoc in Iraq and its internal repression on all forms of intellectual dissent are detestable – not to mention its record on the death penalty and LGBT rights. The EU is a democratic union that respects human rights and that is why various sanctions, including the visa ban and asset freeze of 82 Iranian dignitaries, remain in place.

But as a starting point its nuclear weapons are gone. This is the beginning, not the end, and as we have seen the EU institutions are capable of playing the long game. The table is set to have a mature, sensible dialogue about the future.

This is a future in which I hope Scotland can play its part. By working with our allies we can be a force for good, not hauled along by a man who is obsessed with genuflecting to a British imperial past. This future is far from certain and it will need considerable effort here at home as well as in Europe. As for me, I will continue to proudly play my role and speak for Scotland here in Brussels where the focus is on mature dialogue, not the kind of adversarial conflict that takes place on the banks of the Thames.