US, EU at Odds on Iran Action

GENEVA – As the United States began making the case in the UN Security Council this week for what its Ambassador John Bolton calls “painful consequences” if Iran continues with its controversial nuclear program, Washington is facing a familiar dilemma: What to do if the rest of the world refuses to go along?

Unlike the debate preceding the war in Iraq, the United States and most of the world seem to agree that something must be done to restrain Tehran.

However, there is no consensus on the question of just how “painful” the consequences should be. And while its allies across the Atlantic have recently joined the United States in issuing strong statements about Iran’s activities, Europe remains largely divided on how far it will follow Washington’s line.

In the United States, the recent rapprochement between the United States and Europe has been cited with we-told-you-so vindication. But according to observers in Europe, the Euro-U.S. convergence on Iran is much thinner than it appears.

Europe’s willingness to present a united front with the United States on Iran is driven by a number of factors, they say, including mounting concern for the U.S. predicament in Iraq, the disappointing outcomes of its negotiations with Iran, and the fear that further destabilization in the Middle East will have serious consequences for European security.

None of these factors, however, mean that Europe sees Iran as an “enemy that must be vanquished” – or that it views Washington’s “war on terror” with anything less than skepticism. And solving the Iranian crisis, say these observers, will likely hinge more on how far Washington is willing to move toward a European position rather than vice-versa.

Tim Guldimann, a former Swiss ambassador to Iran and currently a professor at the University of Frankfurt who coauthored a recent report on the Iranian nuclear situation by the International Crisis Group (ICG), argues that the best way out of the current impasse is to forge an agreement that recognizes an Iranian nuclear fuel program as a fait accompli.

“For two and a half years now, Iran has been perfectly clear about its intentions to have an enrichment program But the EU3 [Germany, France, and Great Britain] ignored this, arguing that offering incentives and threatening sanctions would eventually get Iran to stop its enrichment program,” he said. “Not surprisingly, the Iranians rejected out of hand this approach when it was proposed by the Europeans last August.”

Instead of insisting that Iran relinquish enrichment, says Guldimann, negotiators should propose a “delayed limited enrichment program” as a potential compromise.

According to the ICG report, under such a program, “The wider international community, and the West in particular, would explicitly accept that Iran can not only produce peaceful nuclear energy but has the ‘right to enrich’ domestically; in return, Iran would agree to a several-year delay in the commencement of its enrichment program, major limitations on its initial size and scope, and a highly intrusive inspections regime.”

The problem with this, says Guldimann, is that the United States will never get on board as long it remains steadfastly opposed to any enrichment program. In Europe, on the other hand, the reaction to the ICG report has been at least cautiously curious.

Ultimately, says Guldimann, what Iran seems to be pushing for is not the bomb itself, but the capability to produce a bomb if the need should arise. “The goal, which has not been officially recognized, is to have the military option, but not a bomb,” he said. “The Iranians were attacked by Iraq with weapons of mass destruction, 600,000 died. When that happened they stood alone, without the support from outside. That history is critical in Iranian considerations.”

Mohammad-Reza Djalili, an Iranian-born professor of history at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, agrees. Djalili, who compares Iran’s ambitions to Israel’s policy of nuclear “opacity” – neither confirming nor denying the existence of its arsenal – says that while Iran might seek a nuclear weapons capability, it is not in its interest to actually have the bomb.

“The theoretical possibility of having a nuclear arsenal goes a long way to giving Iran standing both globally and regionally. At the same time, by refraining from actually producing weapons, Iran wouldn’t provide sufficient rationale for its neighbors [including Turkey and Saudi Arabia] to build their own arsenals.”

The author of the 2005 book Géopolitique de l’Iran, Djalili argues that Europe and the United States need to view the Iranian nuclear program within the larger context of the country’s evolving grand strategies, which traditionally have included a “European strategy” aimed at building relations with Europe to counterbalance U.S. antagonism, and an “Eastern strategy” intended to develop economic relations with India, Russia, and China.

Both strategies, says Djalili, have at their root Iran’s preoccupation with the United States, which has been a core concern since the Islamic revolution.

In part because of the growing nuclear crisis, says Djalili, “what we are now witnessing is the ultimate failure of the European strategy, as Europe adopts a harder stance and aligns itself closer to the United States.”

How far Europe is willing to go to block an Iranian enrichment program, he says, is another matter altogether. While Europe and the United States might agree on sanctions, it is hard to imagine Europe supporting the use of force, “the option pushed by some in the United States.”

“My biggest concern is that this impasse will drive some policymakers in the United States to adopt the view pushed by neoconservatives – that is, to try to destabilize Iran by supporting internal rebellions among different ethnic, religious, and political factions,” he concluded. “This would be disastrous, leading to still further balkanization in the region, more conflict, and more bloodshed.”

Other observers note that Europe should not be viewed as a monolithic block, even if there has been widespread consensus in support of the EU3 negotiating efforts. Not only are there opposing political currents between states on the continent, there are competing agendas within individual countries.

According to Jean Brincmont, a Belgian theoretical physicist and author of Impérialisme Humanitaire (05), “There is a struggle in Europe between pro- and anti-U.S. opinions.”

Further, many countries, like France, have shown a strong willingness to go it alone in their foreign policies, which was seen in Jacques Chirac’s recent declarations about changes in that country’s nuclear posture. Citing the example of the pro-U.S. and enormously influential French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarcozy, Brincmont argues that “France may sometimes be divided over issues like Iran, but it is by no means subservient to U.S. positions.”

The potential for fissures in the European position was exhibited in early March in the wake of allegations that Moscow had floated a proposal to allow Iran to enrich a small amount of uranium on its soil in exchange for delaying for several years larger scale production.

According to the March 6 New York Times, European diplomats said the proposal was “driving a wedge into what had been a relatively united front on uranium enrichment in Iran.” Germany is cautiously supportive of Russia, they said, while France and Britain are siding with the United States.

Russia later disavowed the proposal. But the Russian case highlights another complication in any transatlantic effort to resolve the crisis – that Western powers do not hold all the cards.

“The West hasn’t yet fully realized that the world has changed,” says Guldimann. “The economic development of Asia, rising oil prices, the emergence of Russia as a key negotiating partner – all these things work against the idea that we can impose an end to the enrichment program, which is the preferred solution.”

In contrast to U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney’s statement that the “international community is prepared to impose meaningful consequences,” Guldimann contends that while most countries may pay lip service to the idea that Iran should not have an enrichment program, “when you put sanctions on the table things will fall apart. China won’t go along, nor will Russia or India, or presumably Japan.”

Brincmont agrees, but says that ultimately, the nuclear power states have themselves to blame. “As long as the great powers want to keep their bombs, smaller powers will emerge asking for the same.”

Author: Michael Flynn

Michael Flynn is the director of IPS Right Web and the lead researcher of the Global Detention Project at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.