The world in 2016 can be a safer place thanks to the deal we reached with Iran in July 2015. The agreement guarantees Iran will not build an atomic bomb, in any circumstances. It provides the world with effective tools to verify Tehran’s compliance and it does so for a minimum of ten years—even longer on the most sensitive issues. We need to make sure we use this time in the best possible way. We cannot afford to wake up ten years from now and realise we have lost the best chance in a generation to set up a more co-operative regional and global order. Much will depend on how all the actors involved seize this opportunity.
The new Iranian leadership has shown it is willing to engage with the international community in a very different way. I witnessed first-hand the commitment of the Iranian negotiators to reach mutually acceptable solutions. And we all witnessed the joy of young Iranians celebrating the deal in the streets of Tehran. They cheered the political and symbolic meaning of the agreement: a chance for Iran to open up. This is a chance we cannot ignore or miss.
Time will test everyone’s goodwill. The first few months since we signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action have been promising, and so far Iran has fully complied with the “road map” agreed with the International Atomic Energy Agency.
But goodwill is not enough. We all need courage and wisdom to shape our common future while we tackle our common challenges. And there are plenty of challenges in today’s Middle East.
Some have been there for decades, some are brand new, and some will probably remain for a long time. Issues of faith and ethnicity have mixed with a fight for regional hegemony. Regional actors pursue different agendas, for historical reasons and because of their current interests. Amid such an explosive mix, the struggle for greater opportunities fought by young people across the region just a few years ago seems to be lost for ever.
Many of these youngsters have new battles to fight: for human rights, for freedom and often for answers to the most basic needs. Others are joining terrorist groups. In response, states facing common threats need to overcome old disputes and join forces.
From a political point of view, the deal with Iran creates an opportunity. If properly implemented, it ensures that there will be no nuclear stand-off in the Middle East—making all countries in the region safer, including the Gulf states and Israel. But that is not all. The deal sets the scene for new relations based on trust, or at least on the shared recognition of common interests. It prepares the way for a new regional dynamic.
So-called Islamic State (IS) and other terrorist groups have built their strength on divisions inside Iraq, Syria and the region. Co-operation between Sunni and Shia forces, or between Muslim nations and their international partners, is what scares IS the most.
Even in Syria—the scene of the cruellest conflict of our times—there could be a path out of the crisis. The UN Security Council has clearly stated that there is no military solution to the civil war, and that a political transition is crucial to defeat IS and the al-Nusra Front. Regional and international actors have a big influence on the Syrian parties. It is time to bring them all to the table for serious negotiations, inside the UN-led framework. It will not be easy. It will take time, collective leadership and some difficult decisions. But in a more co-operative regional and international environment, peace in Syria is indeed possible.
The European way
Despite the premature obituaries, multi-lateralism is not dead. The deal with Iran reinvigorates those who still put trust in the multilateral system. It shows that nothing is as effective as working together when looking for lasting solutions. This is the European way: dialogue, diplomacy, partnership, perseverance; a win-win approach. On the Iran deal it led to great results. We can now inject new hope into the management of other crises we see deteriorating around us, from Libya to the Middle East peace process.
Some believe this approach will lead us nowhere. Some say it is naive. They should keep in mind how many crises a “less naive” approach has fuelled. But we need to be united and consistent. It took us 12 years of negotiations—and almost 40 years of distrust—before we could find an agreement with Iran. Forty years is a long time; it is my entire life. Still, we have to remember that nothing is eternal in politics. Our hard work can change the course of history.
We need patience and vision: what will not happen in 2016 might be possible to achieve in 2017. But millions of displaced people and hundred of thousands of victims instil a sense of urgency in us. This coming year must be a year of action.