September 3, 2006

Europe: Your chance is now

Posted in Europe, Iran at 6:53 pm by billdawson

In an article published by the Wall Street Journal and dated 22 September 2005, three European foreign ministers (France, Germany, UK) and the EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy complained about Iran’s resumption of uranium enrichment, explained that such enrichment cannot really be related to peaceful use of nuclear energy, recited instances of Iranian deception and concluded thusly:

The proliferation risks if Iran continues on its current path are very great. We hope all members of the international community will remain united. Collectively, we are responsible for meeting the challenge.

Since that time, the challenge has been “met” by responding to Iran’s continued defiance with little more than public criticism accompanied by new “incentives” and deadlines. The process has not exactly been speedy. For example, whereas these ministers, in their article, made it perfectly clear that they were aware of what Iran is actually up to, it took a full ten months before the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1696.

In addition to formally endorsing a set of extraordinary incentives offered to Iran, this resolution finally also contained at least a hint of a threat in it. Paragraph 8 notes that the council “expresses its intention” to “adopt appropriate measures under Article 41 of Chapter VII” of the UN Charter if the IAEA is unable to report by 31. August 2006 that Iran is complying.

The IAEA has issued its report (hat tip Vital Perspective), and, as everybody expected, Iran is not complying.

So much for the background information. Now to my point concerning Europe’s big chance and how they are so far handling it.

For as long as I have lived here — and particularly since 9/11 — I have read the frequent complaint (especially in the left-leaning press) that the U.S. is a “hegemony”. Terms like “arrogant power” and “sheriff” get tossed around with ease. Readers are reminded of the dangers of having a single superpower. Presumably, the people who make such comments would like to see that hegemonic power be curtailed by an increased European influence on world affairs. Although I often find these complaints of US hegemony offensive and irrational, I understand why people are not comfortable with a single country being so much more influential than all others.  Speaking personally, I would love to see a reduced US role around the world, particularly for economic reasons.

In the case of Iran, the current U.S. administration has made it clear to the mullahs that Iran’s nuclear ambitions are not a bilateral U.S.-Iran issue, nor a trilateral U.S.-Israel-Iran issue, but rather an issue concerning the whole international community. To that end, the U.S. has stayed on the sidelines to an unusual extent and, having no direct diplomatic relations with Iran, deferred to the European “3+1” (England, France, Germany and the E.U. High Representative for foreign relations, Javier Solana) for most “negotiations” with Iran.

I quote the word “negotiations” above because, in fact, there have not really been any negotiations as of yet. We find ourselves stuck in that stage of trying to lay the groundwork for negotiations. Negotiations themselves cannot begin unless and until Iran suspends enrichment activities. The IAEA report of 31 August 2006 is rather clear on the current state of that condition:

Iran has not suspended its enrichment related activities; [paragraph 28]

How is “Europe” going to respond to this defiance? It appears we will have to wait at least another two weeks to find out. The E.U. foreign ministers, meeting in Finland this weekend, have agreed to send Mr. Solana yet again to Iran; he should then report on progress within two weeks. Meanwhile, if assessments by Bronwen Maddox at Times Online and Mark Beunderman at EU Observer are correct, a certain level of EU in-fighting is breaking out, making it more difficult to sustain the appearance of a united front. Maddox says that the new government in Italy wants to play a bigger role in the Iran issue; they are not part of the “3+1” but they are the leading supplier of troops to prop up the peace in Lebanon. Beunderman says that because 22 of the 25 EU countries have not seen Iran’s written response to the P5+1 incentives program, many are beginning to see the “3” (U.K., Germany, France) as a “quasi-directorate” on foreign affairs. Beunderman concludes that “most EU ministers at the meeting showed little appetite for the idea” for sanctions.

To me, this means that the authority of the “3+1” is quickly deteriorating and that there is not now and never will be any consensus within the EU as a whole regarding what to do next about Iran. Because a “deadline” has just passed, this deterioration could not occur at a more embarrassing time for the so-called “West” and at a more opportune and satisfying time for the mullahs. If I were a mullah, I would have already not been taking the EU seriously to begin with, and I would now feel more vindicated than ever for holding that opinion.

Is the positive projection of European influence a hopeless case? It depends on whether you define Europe as the “EU”, as many of Europe’s elites would like you to do. As a foreign policy institution, I believe that the EU is, in fact, a hopeless case and that the United States government made a grave mistake in agreeing to grant authority to the “+1” part of the European “3+1”. Mr. Solana will be representing everybody and nobody as he travels to Iran in the coming days. Those with whom he meets will know that he is backed by no authority and that he represents no real threat to them. Mr. Solana and others like him apparently continue to respect Iran as a serious partner in these discussions, whereas the Iranians do not and will not grant him the same respect.

On the other hand, individual European countries who take the Iranian threat seriously can and should form a coalition with or without the United States to immediately impose at least low-level sanctions such as restricting the travel of high-ranking members of the Iranian government. Such sanctions are largely symbolic, but at the moment we are in dire need for some kind of symbols of European fortitude. And I stress that the Europeans can do this without the US, which has, itself, shown considerable recent weakness on precisely these kinds of symbolic sanctions by granting the former president of Iran a visa to enter the country.

For decades, many European countries have conveniently and passively ceded their sovereignty over their own foreign policies to the United States (as “sheriff”), to the United Nations and to the EU.  For the US to be less “hegemonic”, this is a habit that European countries need to break.  It is time for a few European countries — outside the framework of the EU — to emerge together with a backbone and publicly admit the obvious: the Iranians are not serious negotiating partners and they should no longer be treated as such.

There is a precedent for such a move.  In January 2003 several European countries signed a joint letter on Iraq,  much to the consternation of France’s president.  These countries might be shying away from a similar declaration because of the (in my mind, undeserved) political embarrassment that has accompanied the lack of a WMD “smoking gun” in Iraq and the popular portrayal of the entire Iraq war as a disaster.  But great states and great statesmen would never allow embarrassment over alleged past mistakes to stop them from taking a stance against the terror-sponsoring, nuclear ambitious theocracy of Iran.

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