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Iran nuclear talks: EU diplomacy finds a stronger voice (+video)

Negotiators failed to meet today's deadline for a nuclear deal. But an EU foreign policy entity created just three years ago has proved more effective than its critics expected. 

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Former European foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamad Javad Zarif address the media after closed-door nuclear talks in Vienna, Austria, Monday.

Ronald Zak/AP

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High-stakes talks on Iran’s nuclear program ended today without a deal. But for the European Union, the agreement to extend talks and set new deadline may mark a turning point for its young foreign policy arm – an entity that many had dismissed as ineffective.

Critics have considered the European External Action Service (EAS), launched in 2011, to be just another layer of EU bureaucracy. Individual member states really run the foreign policy show, they argue, as has been apparent with the Ukraine crisis.  

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But on Iran, the EU has spoken with one voice. And, its supporters argue, it has the opportunity to prove its worth by accomplishing things that individual countries could not. 

"Europe should really use [the extension in negotiations] to make a worthwhile case, that the EAS has an added value that national foreign services cannot do," says Cornelius Adebahr, a European foreign policy expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "[The Iran case] can set a prime example of what the EU could be doing."

Europe has played a leading role in Iran negotiations since 2003. Faced with the disclosure at the time of a secret Iranian nuclear program, and fears that the US could strike Tehran after having invaded Iraq, Europe rushed to find a diplomatic solution. Britain, France, and Germany – the "EU3" – launched an initiative to defuse possibility of another war in the Middle East.

But it was an EU, not just individual, effort from the start, led by Javier Solana, then the secretary general of the Council of the European Union. By 2011, the EAS gave an official diplomatic corps to the EU, with Catherine Ashton as its first high representative – and Europe's face on Iran.

The "EU3" allowed the EU to drive negotiations. That has not been the case in dealings with Russia, where business interests and oil dependency have trumped EU cohesion on sanctions.  

"Because Russia is such a divisive issue, it was easier to come to a sense of unity on Iran than it has been on Russia," says Mr. Abebahr, a German who consults for several German businesses and institutions. 

EU sanctions on Iran have roiled some ties in Europe, too, with several countries accused of wavering because of business interests. And France sparked a rift last year on the other side of the spectrum, when Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was called out for pushing harder on Iran than the rest of the group – though it endeared him briefly to American hawks who were wary of a soft deal for Iran.

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"What is sure is France's position has changed, from playing an 'anti' role to consensus," says Thierry Coville, an Iran expert at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris. "They see, as does everyone, that there is an opportunity [for a solution]. They do not want to spoil the situation." 

 Mr. Coville agrees the EU has played a positive role on Iran: Ms. Ashton brokered the interim-agreement in November last year that put limits on Iran's nuclear program. But in recent years, Europe has moved closer to the US position on negotiations and sanctions. In many ways, the EU'S relationship with Iran has been reduced to the nuclear question.

Now Adebahr sees a window of opportunity provided by the new deadline and new leaders in Brussels, including a new high representative who could bring a fresh approach to the question. As he and Marc Otte from Belgium's Egmont Royal Institute for International Relations write in the EUObserver this month: "The EU's approach to Iran has emerged as one of the few successes of European foreign policy." But, they added, the EU hasn't looked beyond "broader engagement" ranging from "energy partnership to more constructive engagement on Syria to a renewed dialogue on human rights."

 While the failure to reach a deal now allows time for new unknowns to throw off the 12-year process, it also builds in more time to address the EU's relationship with Iran beyond the nuclear deadline.