Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Europe’s role in the Iran conflict

by Marco Overhaus
May 11, 2006

nuclear iran--In dealing with Iran's nuclear program the Europeans are going in circles. Instead of tabling old ideas they should try new ones - or develop extant ones further.

To the outside observer the efforts of the European trio to deal with the conflict over Iran's nuclear program in some ways resemble those of three hikers in a dark forest who lost their orientation. After a long and painful walk, which for the "EU-3" had begun in October 2003, they finally arrived at the same junction where they initially departed. This week, France, the United Kingdom and Germany announced another proposal with "new" economic incentives to persuade Tehran to forego uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities - which the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the United Nations Security Council demand.

Yet, this is what European negotiators have been offering ever since the conflict started almost three years ago. In fact, the Europeans already put all the carrots they have on the table to reach two deals with Iran in 2003 and 2004: economic and trade cooperation with the EU, support for the peaceful use of nuclear energy and a dialogue on security-related issues. While Tehran initially agreed to temporarily suspend its enrichment activities as a "confidence building measure", both deals finally led nowhere. Tehran showed itself unimpressed and resumed the conversion and enrichment of uranium. Against this background it is doubtful that a modified offer by the EU-3 would produce better results.

With the United States still bogged down in Iraq and with oil prices reaching new heights it is unlikely that the conflict over Iran's nuclear program will escalate to an open crisis or even a military confrontation in the short run. Yet, as the case of Iraq has shown, time is not necessarily working in favor of a peaceful solution when progress on the diplomatic front is not forthcoming. Does this mean that the international community will inevitably face the awkward choice between the Scylla of another destabilizing war and the Charybdis of a nuclear armed Iran? Fortunately, there is still room and time to avoid such a choice in the future, but it will require more creativity and flexibility of the Europeans than has been the case so far. To be sure, the trio in London, Paris and Berlin has only limited options at its disposal. To assess these limits and opportunities it is useful to briefly look back and ask why the previous European efforts to reach a long-term agreement with Tehran have ultimately failed.

Firstly, even though the conflict over Iran's nuclear program is between the majority of the international community and Iran, its main protagonists are Washington and Tehran. This is why France, Germany and Great Britain have always conceived themselves to be intermediaries rather than problem solvers themselves. While the Europeans could throw the incentive of economic cooperation into the ring the ultimate sticks and carrots - also seen from the Iranian side - are held by Washington. Consequently, the EU-3 have always depended on the goodwill of both sides simultaneously which has not been forthcoming. This leads us to the second factor.

The preferences between Washington and Tehran have so far been entirely incompatible. The Bush Administration has made it clear that it expects Iran to permanently terminate its enrichment and reprocessing activities. It does so on the understanding that Tehran has forfeited its rights to conduct all peaceful nuclear activities because it cheated on its commitments from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) for more than two decades. In 2004, President Bush went even further when he suggested that uranium enrichment should be barred to all countries not yet possessing the technology and know-how to do so now. By contrast, the Iranian leadership has always insisted on its "inalienable right" to engage in civilian nuclear activities according to Article IV of the NPT. Even moderate Iranians share this view but seem to be willing to consider a "suspension" of enrichment on a voluntary basis. Here again, the Europeans (led by the EU-3) have adopted an intermediate position, demanding a long-term or infinite "suspension" of the contested activities as a basis for negotiations. This entails the possibility that Iran might resume them at a later date when political conditions have changed. So far, this middle course has not persuaded Washington or Tehran to modify their positions significantly, however.

Finally, the domestic context of Iranian politics has not been very helpful to the European efforts (and nor to the diplomatic efforts more generally). Since the hardliner Mahmud Ahmadi-Nejad was elected as Iranian president in June 2005, the negotiations between Tehran and the EU-3 and later the IAEA and the permanent five members of the UN Security Council (plus Germany) have become more complicated. Although Ahmadi-Nejad is not the highest formal authority in foreign and security policy he has made international negotiations much more difficult with his remarks on Israel and his disdain for the UN Security Council. His recent letter to President Bush rejects Western values and democracy altogether and thus cannot be seen as a serious effort to revitalize international negotiations.

So what does this all tell us about which path Germany and its European partners should now pursue? Obviously, European diplomats have already learned some lessons from the past. Most crucially, they have learned the lesson from Iraq that Western and international unity is a high value in itself and a precondition for the eventual resolution of the conflict. Chancellor Merkel and Foreign Minister Steinmeier have spent much energy and political capital to bring the informal "contact group" (consisting of the "permanent five" France, Great Britain, Russia, China and the USA plus Germany) together. They have also learned the lesson that the EU-3 cannot substitute for direct talks between Washington and Tehran (a point which both Merkel and Steinmeier made during their recent visits to the US).

These lessons now have to be complemented with more flexibility and creativity on Europe's side. So far, the so-called "Russian proposal" - the idea to enrich uranium for Iran outside the country under the auspices of a Russian-Iranian consortium - has been the proposition closest to a mutually acceptable long-term solution. It has the potential to be developed further, for instance by including China and European partners into a multinational enrichment scheme on Russian territory. The Europeans could bring in their extensive experience for multinational nuclear activities from the URENCO framework. Even a small scale enrichment of uranium in Iran under such a multinational framework and under intrusive IAEA inspections should not be beyond imagination 1. If the aforementioned choice between military confrontation and a nuclear armed Iran is to be avoided, the new "contact group" will have to raise both the incentives and the probability for truly painful economic sanctions. For Germany and its European partners, the challenge now is to try to inject more creativity and flexibility into the negotiations without risking international unity (especially the transatlantic link) and without overburdening the agenda of the negotiations or giving Tehran the impression of being appeased. This will surely be a very difficult walk on the tightrope. Still, Europeans should resist the temptation to simply play for time. As the conflict drags on, the choice might indeed narrow down to Scylla or Charybdis.
posted by ali ghannadi-irannuk


1 For a more detailed proposal see the recent study of the International Crisis Group (2006): "Iran: Is there a way out of the nuclear impasse?", Middle East Report No. 51 - 23 February 2006. Available at:


The author is project manager of "Deutsche-Aussenpolitik.De" and research fellow at the Chair for International Relations at the University of Trier.


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