Tension is growing between US, Europe and Iran as the meeting in Geneva on Thursday approaches. After Iran´s test-firing of two short-range missiles, a test with the Shahab 3 long range missile is scheduled for Monday.
Although Iran´s nuclear program is arguably the most controversial and dangerous issue on Europe´s foreign policy agenda, decision-making is still dominated by the big three – Germany, France and the UK. How wise is it for other Member States to accept this approach?
On Friday, Barack Obama, Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy sent a strong message to Iran, linked to the second uranium enrichment facility near Qom. Angela Merkel associated herself with the joint statement. Nicolas Sarkozy also said: “If by December there is not an in-depth change by the Iranian leaders, sanctions will have to be taken.”
Although there was a discussion on sanctions at the Gymnich meeting in Stockholm, as well as later, the December deadline set by Sarkozy in New York does not seem to have been fully co-ordinated among the EU-27. Still, the security consequences for all Member States could be immense.
After the strong statements in New York and the Iranian missile tests, the path towards tough sanctions seems almost inevitable. But where does it lead? Interviewed by The Guardian, David Miliband did not rule out military action if diplomacy fails.
There is always conventional wisdom on what is politically possible or not. Since 2003, the established view on Iran has been that the E3 should conduct negotiations, with Javier Solana at their side.
“It´s alright as long as things go well”, a high-level Swedish diplomat said when I asked about the 3+1 approach in 2004. Well, it hasn´t exactly been a success.
The earlier “no talks as long as enrichment continues”-line could not be questioned, but turned out to be a failure. Now, it has been abandoned. Including broader security issues in the dialogue with Iran was not possible in 2003 due to political pressure from the Bush administration. That also seems to have been a mistake.
There is no reason to be soft on the brutal dictatorship in Iran. The leadership has struck down peaceful demonstrations and concealed parts of the nuclear program. But by treating Iran different from other parties to the non-proliferation treaty – not to mention Israel – the EU3 are giving the hardliners in Teheran an argument at home. Don´t underestimate the anti-colonial feelings in a nation proud of its long history and culture.
Instead of ultimatums, the EU could make its “carrots” more attractive, by improving trade offers, discussing broader security issues, and dealing also with Israel´s nuclear program. Philip Stephens recently argued well for a strategy built on incentives in the Financial Times.
That does not mean that the EU should rule out tough action towards Teheran, just that Iran should be treated as everybody else. The fact-based approach of Mohamed ElBaradei at the IAEA has been better than the aggressive words of Europe´s nuclear powers. There is still scope for a strategy build more on incentives than on threats.
The December deadline puts pressure on Swedish EU Presidency. Iran will most likely be high on the agenda for the EU Summit 29-30 October, but no presidency so far has been able to keep the big three from acting on their own.
Are Bildt och Reinfeldt being sidelined? Well, the Swedes are doing what they can to keep the issue about sanctions within the established EU procedures, but it is not an easy task.
Iran will be one more test for the credibility of the common foreign policy, and is already one more reason for the new High Representative not to come from one of the three biggest Member States.