Thursday, May 04, 2006

U.S.-EU Unity Over Iran Masks Differences Behind the Scenes

Marc Champion, The Wall Street Journal:
The U.S. and European governments are working in lock step to get a fresh United Nations Security Council resolution against Iran, part of a global diplomatic coordination that hasn't been seen since before the Iraq war.

But what they aren't talking about publicly is where they diverge: Washington and its allies still have profound differences over tactics and the bottom line -- including whether or not military force is an option -- that could pose trouble for the alliance in the future, according to officials familiar with the talks. READ MORE

Britain and France yesterday circulated a U.S.-backed joint draft resolution in the Security Council that would require Iran to halt its nuclear-fuel program. Russia and China currently oppose the resolution, which under the U.N.'s binding Chapter 7 rules could open the path to sanctions and other punitive measures.

Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice floated another idea: forming a "coalition of the willing" outside the Security Council, if the members can't agree on sanctions. Ms. Rice was talking about economic and political sanctions, not military action. But with its echoes from the Iraq war, the phrase "frightened the horses," said one European diplomat familiar with the talks.

The European Union's foreign-policy coordinator, Javier Solana, said Europe wasn't ready to talk about coalitions of the willing, at a German Marshall Fund conference on trans-Atlantic relations in Brussels over the weekend.

"The coalition we are working with now is inside the Security Council. It's the Security Council, the virtual EU as represented by Solana, and Germany," said another EU diplomat familiar with the talks. "If you start talking now about building another coalition of the willing, you undermine the one we have."

Equally unhelpful, in the European view, are news reports of alleged U.S. military planning for an attack on Iran and of senior U.S. politicians talking about possible military action. Most recently, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona said at the same Brussels conference, "There's only one thing worse than military action, and that's a nuclear-armed Iran."

The Bush administration is adamant that it isn't planning for military action. "That is not what we are thinking about. This is not on the agenda. It is not where we are," said Daniel Fried, assistant U.S. secretary of state for European affairs. However, the administration also has stressed regularly that the option remains on the table.

Officials on both sides of the Atlantic stress that the close working relationship they have now on Iran -- and on how to deal with the new Hamas-led government in the Palestinian territories, on the Balkans and on China -- all demonstrate a major improvement since the 2003 bust-up over the Iraq war.

But Ms. Rice's comments, made in response to questions at the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, and the European reaction, showed underlying differences that could later break apart the new trans-Atlantic harmony. For the U.S., a Security Council resolution would be ideal, but patience to get one is limited. For the Europeans, moving out of the Security Council is a bleak prospect that risks again splitting Europe, raising the specter of Iraq in some governments and among the European public.

Not even Britain, a key U.S. ally on Iraq, is currently willing to consider circumstances in which it would support military action against Iran. Some foreign-office officials believe such a move would bring the worst of both worlds -- war, and a nuclear-armed Iran. Many European diplomats also believe that any talk of military action plays into the hands of the regime in Tehran, which in the nuclear issue has found a rare rallying point for broad national support.

U.S. officials have ruled out direct talks with Iran, an approach that has been pushed recently by senior German officials, who say the U.S. could offer trade ties and security guarantees in exchange for Iranian cooperation on the nuclear issue, terrorism and other areas. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was scheduled to talk to President Bush about Iran in their meeting last night.

Early next week, foreign ministers from the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany will meet in New York to talk about Iran again. The hope, diplomats say, is that by then, the new Security Council resolution will have been passed -- despite resistance from Russia and China -- and the foreign ministers can work on ensuring Iran's compliance.

Write to Marc Champion at