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    Middle East
     Mar 26, 2009
Europe out of step with US over Iran
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

In his latest overture toward Iran, United States President Barack Obama offered a "new beginning" in relations between the two countries, promising that "this process will not be advanced by threats" but rather through an "engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect".

As expected, Obama's initiative has been hailed in Europe as "timely", "bold" and even "groundbreaking", yet despite all the European rhetoric one wonders if the European Union (EU) might be out of step with the US's new approach.

This is an important issue in light of Obama's impending trip to London in early April and the current efforts by the "Iran Six" nations to formulate their next step on Iran; this group consists of

 

the UN Security Council's permanent five - the US, Britain, France, Russia and China - plus Germany.

The quilted EU foreign policy lacks a coherent Iran strategy at the moment and various policy clusters reflect growing internal fissures conducive to half-hearted or contradictory approaches with respect to Tehran.

A clue as to what is wrong with the EU's Iran policy emerged in London recently when British Prime Minister Gordon Brown delivered a major foreign policy speech at Chatham House calling for "engagement with Iran".

Brown's comments on Iran are worth quoting at length:
Iran is a test case for this new philosophy of the right to civil nuclear power with sanctions for rule breakers. Let me be unequivocal: Iran has the same absolute right to a peaceful civil nuclear program as any other country. Indeed the UK and international community stand ready to help Iran achieve it - as the opening of the Bushehr nuclear plant already shows. But let me be equally clear that Iran's current nuclear program is unacceptable. Iran has concealed nuclear activities, refused to cooperate with the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency], and flouted UN Security Council resolutions. Its refusal to play by the rules leads us to view its nuclear program as a critical proliferation threat.

Iran therefore faces a clear choice: continue in this way and face further and tougher sanctions, or change to an UN-overseen civil nuclear energy program that will bring the greatest benefits to its citizens. I hope that Iran will make the right choice and take advantage of the international community's willingness to negotiate, including President Obama's offer of engagement, rather than face further sanctions and regional instability. So I urge Iran, once again, to work with us rather than against us on this. The opportunity to do so remains on the table; the choice is theirs to make.
Clearly, Washington and London are not on the same page about the use of threats and ultimatums in advance of their engagement with Iran and the varying tone of Obama's persuasive diplomacy in contrast to Brown's coercive diplomacy may reflect more than a difference of style but rather of policy substance.

Brown's Iran policy resembles the one-dimensional, coercive and unreconstructed policy adopted by Israel with regard to Iran, and less the kind of nuanced approach trickling out of Washington these days. This warrants the question of whether or not, at a time when Washington is apparently seeking a more independent Middle East policy (from the fetters of pro-Israel interests), [1] is Europe ready to follow suit, or continue with the existing pattern of coordinating its every Iran move with Israel?

In the absence of a certain decoupling of the EU's Iran policy from Israel, the hope of a trans-Atlantic unity against the "Iran threat" may be an exercise in futility. The EU as a whole and its constituent member states must now either design a brand new approach toward Iran or be fated to continuing with the coercive approach that is reflected in Brown's speech cited above. That reminds one of the movie, Godfather, particularly the line where the young Michael Corleon played by Al Pacino tells his girlfriend that his father the godfather gave someone “an offer he couldn't refuse ... held a gun to his head”.

Sadly, Brown, in offering Iran the stark choices of engagement or sanctions and "regional instability", conveniently overlooks that a sanctions-weakened Iran would add to Europe's security headache, whereas a strong Iran involved in regional stability would reduce that headache.

But, then again, the nub of the problem with Brown's, and for that matter the EU's, Iran policy has to do with the Gordian knot of the nuclear standoff. As a result of this, all the present talk of "engagement" may soon evaporate in a future u-turn to more bellicose rhetoric under the false impression that all noble efforts with Tehran have been tried and exhausted to no avail. This is a recipe for disaster and, as a preventive method, a deconstruction of Brown's Iran speech, may be helpful.

First, Brown gives the false impression that Iran has stopped cooperating with the IAEA and that the UN atomic agency has virtually no "overseeing" capability over Iran's nuclear program. This is false. IAEA inspectors have conducted unprecedented inspections of Iran's facilities since 2003, also making 21 unannounced visits at the enrichment plants since March 2007. They have put Iran's nuclear fuel under their seal, and put in place robust surveillance mechanisms whereby their cameras record every minute of activity at the enrichment plants.

This whole issue was brought to the EU's attention by Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, at a recent meeting in Brussels. Lavrov admitted that "there is no proof that Iran even has decided to make a nuclear bomb" and added "as long as the IAEA works in Iran, the IAEA monitors all the centrifuges which are producing low-enriched uranium for the fuel purposes. To change it to weapons-grade uranium you need to do manipulations which would be immediately noticed by IAEA cameras, or if cameras are switched off we will also know that something took place which is wrong."

Second, in addition to forgetting the IAEA's own findings, such as the absence of any evidence of diversion of nuclear material, let alone any smoking gun, Brown is equally guilty of omitting any reference to the US intelligence finding that, at least since 2003, Iran's nuclear program has no weaponization component. This is a conclusion that the new heads of the US intelligence community, including Dennis Blair, have stood by. This in light of Blair's recent congressional testimony and his admission that Iran has not produced any weapons-grade uranium. In other words, Iran has produced only low-enriched uranium, which is perfectly legal under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to which it is a signatory.

Third, Brown's real worry is the weakening of the NPT by "rule breakers", even though the main culprits are the disarmament-averse nuclear-weapons states, such as the United Kingdom, which has embarked on an expensive modernization of its Trident nuclear submarine fleet. To this day it refuses to make a "no first strike" pledge that would put to rest the anxieties of non-weapon states in the developing world.

Brown may therefore understand why some of his audience in the developing world view with skepticism his speech's rhetorical commitment to "reduce" the British nuclear arsenal. Sure, the number of warheads piled up by the US and the UK may be shrinking, but (a) not in sufficient proportions to make a real difference in terms of the lack of commitment of these nuclear-possessing countries to their NPT obligations, and (b) more importantly, their token reductions are offset by the higher yields of their so-called smart tactical and strategic bombs that can deliver a more deadly punch.

Further, Brown has reiterated the West's commitment to guarantee the delivery of nuclear fuel to Iran, something inserted in their package of incentives to Iran a couple of years ago, and to prove it, he has cited the "opening" of the Russian-built Bushehr power plant as a sign of the "UK and international community's" goodwill toward Iran.

Perhaps Brown knows something that the public does not. Is he really referring to the initially German-made power plant that was left half-finished, forcing Iran to file a law suit against the German contractors to no avail? Selling a failed experience as a success story requires more than verbal acrobatics. Rather, it depends on the sheer distortion of facts: what "opening" of Bushehr is he talking about, when after a 10-year delay the Russians refuse to give a timeline for the reactor's operationability?

Hopefully, Moscow has run out of options in playing the delay game. But even assuming that Bushehr will commence working some time in the future, Iran's resentment due to reneged promises and Moscow's manipulation of their contractual obligations to Iran for the sake of their dealings with the US and the EU, is a major reason why Tehran is unlikely to have much faith in such empty promises by Brown and company.

Also, let's assume Tehran turns around and takes up the "Iran Six” group's offer of abandoning its nuclear fuel cycle for the sake of their guaranteed delivery of nuclear fuel. In that case, in the absence of an international nuclear fuel "bank", how will this be worked out? Who will control this fuel bank and how will collective decision-making work in the event of a lack of consensus? Some key stakeholders might object that Iran has not fulfilled some of its verifications obligations. Would the faucets at the fuel bank then be shut on Iran? There are too many troubling questions about a hypothetical scenario that simply militate against Iran's acceptance of this option.

In conclusion, the bottom line is that Iran's red line on its nuclear fuel cycle is not up for negotiation, when everything else pertaining to transparency and objective guarantees is. The more Western powers continue on the present track, pushing Iran to cross its self-declared red line - that is, the right to enrich uranium - the more they will aggravate the Iranian nuclear crisis.

Note
1. See Roger Cohern's From Tehran to Tel Aviv International Herald Tribune, March 22, 2009.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry, click here. His latest book, Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) is now available.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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