Europe Should Be Careful What It Wishes for in Iran

por Reuel Marc Gerecht, 3 de marzo de 2005

Financial Times  (London) March 1, 2005)
Let us make a bet with very high odds and sad returns: Iran's nuclear program is likely to derail any serious rapprochement between the United States and western Europe. Indeed, it is quite possible this issue will do more damage to U.S.-European relations than the Iraq war did, because the European Union's approach to a nuclear Islamic republic could become more morally repellent to George W. Bush than was the Franco-German campaign against the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq.
U.S. officials may be suggesting an imminent 'convergence' of American and European views. It is more likely, however, that Mr. Bush will recoil from most of the compromises envisioned by the Europeans. As both tough economic sanctions and preventive military strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities are distasteful if not unthinkable to leaders of the EU3--the British, French and German group negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program--'carrots' are, for the Europeans, the only diplomatic tools left. As Robert Kagan, the foreign policy historian, has noted, when soft power becomes the only option in foreign affairs, appeasement--the preferred European word is 'engagement'--becomes a morally and strategically compelling choice.
What the EU3 really wants from Washington is 'Libya Plus': in exchange for good nuclear comportment, the Bush administration should forgive the Islamic republic its terrorism--the clerics ruling Iran are the same ones who orchestrated the bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996--without the clerics admitting guilt. The United States should be prepared to promise non-interference in Iran's internal affairs and stop condemning clerical tyranny and publicly supporting the country's democratic movement. In other words, the Bush administration should refrain from any action that might resemble Ronald Reagan's strategy toward the Soviet bloc.
If the EU3 could convince the Bush administration to 'engage' Iran in this manner it would, of course, achieve perhaps the most highly-desired Franco-German foreign policy goal: effectively gutting the Bush administration's post-9/11 energy and mission. The Middle Eastern government with the longest terrorist track record could be rewarded with Boeing contracts. The Middle Eastern Muslim population with the most advanced democratic and pro-American culture, could be denied support just as Iraq's elections have started a democratic rumbling in the region. Such contradictions between Mr. Bush's words and actions would paralyze the administration. Conservative France and Germany, with a decidedly more Eurocentric, conflicted Britain in tow, will have downed the Texan Prometheus and his too-muscularly liberal America.
But the EU3, in all probability, has done the opposite of what it intended. It has actually made it more likely that the Bush administration will take a tougher, more unilateral approach to the Islamic republic than if it had not tried to assert a European role in halting clerical Iran's pursuit of a nuclear weapons capacity. The Europeans have forced the Bush administration to focus more acutely and sooner on the Iran conundrum than it would have if it were merely the International Atomic Energy Agency issuing its usual reports alluding to Iran's past duplicity and promises of confessional behavior in the future. Consumed with Iraq, the Bush administration would have had more difficulty unilaterally developing a diplomatic movement against the mullahs. The administration has certainly been complicit in European actions toward Iran--U.S.-European discussions have been close, which is why the EU3 has so shaped the administration's thinking. Many in the Bush administration wanted to pass the Iran problem to the Europeans, hoping that EU-Iran negotiations would allow Washington to continue ignoring the conundrum. Some still hope the Europeans can be converted to a big-stick approach; others, uncomfortable with the grand rhetoric about transforming the Middle East, hope the president will adopt the EU3's Libyan scenario.
But the European proclivity towards rapid concessions--and the near-total absence of will to even allude to big sticks--has disappointed the administration. Iran's ruling mullahs have now brought the EU3 talks to an impasse; European concessions, unsurprisingly, are not enough. In a classic case of mirror-imaging, the Europeans believe the clerics are economic 'realists' who truly want accession to the World Trade Organization. For 26 years, however, the ruling mullahs have compromised economics at home and abroad to fortify clerical dictatorship.
It could have been different. Suppose the Europeans had faked a little of Old Europe's capacity for power politics and bluff. Imagine Paris threatening economic sanctions against Tehran, challenging the United States to lead the way to an oil embargo through the United Nations. Where would this have led? In all likelihood, the Chinese or the Russians would have blocked the move on the Security Council. Citing the lack of universality, Paris could have kept its investments in Iran and caused minimal anti-French backlash in Washington. But maybe the Russians and the Chinese would not have blocked comprehensive sanctions. Maybe the clerics, with a track record of backing down in the face of serious force, might have started destroying their centrifuges and implementing the additional protocol to the non-proliferation treaty that allows for spot inspections anywhere, any time. The French, Germans and British could then have made a reasonably strong case that an effective, independent European defense alliance existed outside NATO. The neoconservative suspicion that France and Germany intended to build a new Europe on anti-Americanism would have seemed churlish.
But this is not the direction we are going in. The odds are, Mr. Bush is not going to do Libya again. And the French and Germans are not going to take America's advice. The two-decade old strategy of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the influential former president and the driving force behind Iran's nuclear weapons program, is soon likely to come to fruition. The Islamic republic will have successfully played divide and conquer against the west. If this leads to a clerical A-bomb, or to a pre-emptive United States strike amid a chorus of European outrage, the odds are good that the bonds holding the United States and Europe together will further fray. One day, perhaps after the EU lifts its arms embargo on China and France supplies sophisticated radar and torpedo technology to Beijing, they will snap.
Reuel Marc Gerecht is a resident fellow at AEI and author of The Islamic Paradox: Shiite Clerics, Sunni Fundamentalists, and the Coming of Arab Democracy (AEI Press, November 2004).