Thursday, August 25, 2005

How Iran Revived The U.S.-EU Alliance

Tom Valasek, The Wall Street Journal:
Europe's diplomatic efforts to defuse the nuclear crisis with Iran officially fell apart on Tuesday when France announced the suspension of the talks. But one bright spot remains: Europe and the U.S. rediscovered some of their old unity.

Even as the negotiations ground to a halt, the U.S. stood behind its European allies. The consensus in Washington seems to be that Germany, France and the U.K., the so-called EU-3 which were leading the negotiations, gave it their best try -- even if many feel vindicated in predicting that Iran would never budge. The question now is whether the newfound harmony can survive the failure of the talks. READ MORE

Already, recent comments by Gerhard Schröder pointed to trouble ahead. On Aug. 12 President George W. Bush said that "all options [including military force] are on the table," to which the German chancellor replied the very next day: "Let's take the military option off the table. We have seen it doesn't work." There is no escaping the fact that the U.S. and some of its European allies hold different views on what to do when diplomacy fails; nor has Europe produced any firm plans on this point. If something good is to come out of the failure of EU-Iran talks, the U.S. must remain patient and the EU-3 need to design a response that focuses on preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capabilities, preserving EU credibility and salvaging the new trans-Atlantic goodwill from the wreckage of the Iran talks.

The fact is that, for Washington, the February 2005 agreement, in which the U.S. threw its support behind European diplomacy, was pure pragmatism. The Bush administration never had much faith in the success of the negotiating path, but it simply had no better alternatives. So there was no reason not to try the European path. It was the only way out of the crisis short of a military strike which, given American commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, sounded distinctly unappetizing. But despite the White House's initial misgivings about the EU plan, many in Washington were impressed by Europe's resolve, particularly in facing down Tehran during a crisis in May. Whether by accident or by design, a real opportunity emerged that Iran, of all places, could inject much-needed confidence into EU-U.S. security cooperation.

For its part, the European troika never had much faith in negotiations, either -- but unlike Washington, it will have a hard time spelling out alternatives to diplomacy. This is not because the EU-3 oppose coercion in principle -- no reasonable actor would rule out the option beforehand, and the EU-3 have consistently kept the possibility of sanctions open. The problem is that while Europe is terrific at offering incentives, its ability to coerce a regime like that in Tehran is only now being tested.

Economic sanctions could seriously strain European unity. Has anyone calculated how much each of the EU-3 -- not to mention other union members -- stand to lose in foregone business opportunities? Germany and France are Iran's biggest trading partners. Besides, is there any sense in imposing economic sanctions on Iran when oil costs $65 a barrel and sanctions only stand to drive up that price, further enriching the Tehran government? Yet the EU's credibility may soon hinge on finding the right answers. Several scenarios can now be envisioned:

Ideally, sanctions will be imposed in a way that prompt Iran to change its mind. That would be a tremendous success for EU's diplomatic efforts and an affirmation of its "soft" power.

Second-best scenario: Smart and substantial sanctions are imposed but fail to deter Iran from pursuing military nuclear technology. Europe would be left with little to show for two years of negotiations, and doubts might be raised about the validity of its security philosophy. However, its ability to act coherently and assertively will have been strengthened, and U.S.-European ties may escape relatively unharmed.

The worst possible scenario: Diplomacy fails and there's no follow-up from Europe, no attempt to sanction Iran for its behavior. If so, Iran goes on building its capacity to produce nuclear weapons, EU credibility is severely weakened, and Western unity is in tatters, particularly if military strikes take place.

It is time for European leaders to think through these scenarios. What would constitute effective sanctions against Iran? If economic sanctions are of limited use, would diplomatic and political pressure work better? What about imposing travel restrictions on Iranian officials or curbing participation in international sports tournaments? Europe also needs to think about an adequate response should a third party decide to use force.

More than Tehran's nuclear program is at stake. The fact is that as recently as 2004 Iran was talked about as the crisis that would break the West. Contrary to pundits' predictions, the U.S. and Europe have actually closed ranks -- and they have done so very much on Europe's original terms. That alone is an important accomplishment that needs to be preserved. But at the end of the day, Europe's credibility is at stake. The EU-3 deserve much praise for taking on what is easily the most difficult security issue of the day. If they succeed -- as they still may if coercion works -- the potential payout is enormous.

It is possible to fail nobly; Iran may well turn out to be completely immune to the carrots and sticks the EU can offer, even with the U.S. behind it. But an ignoble failure -- one in which the EU troika fails to follow through on its rhetoric -- cannot be permitted if Europe is to be an effective 21st-century power.

Mr. Valasek is the director of the Brussels office of the World Security Institute (formerly the Center for Defense Information).