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
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.
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), 
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
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
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
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
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
Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing
, October 23, 2008) is now available.