Confrontation with Iran getting closer



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.

Don´t forget about the Baltic Sea



On Friday, EU Foreign Ministers will gather for their semiannual informal meeting. The venue this time is Skeppsholmen, a small island in central Stockholm. Once a stronghold for the Swedish navy, now a peaceful place for museum visits and nice strolls along the water.

Afghanistan and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are among the issues to be discussed at this “Gymnich”-meeting. Today, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt travelled to Afghanistan for a visit.

Other crisis areas might well appear on the agenda. Most likely, Iran will be an important subject, with Germany and France threatening with tougher sanctions and news reports indicating that the Obama administration has promised Israel tougher sanctions towards Teheran.

However, during the coffee breaks, when glancing out of the too small windows in the Museum of Modern art (designed by a Spanish architect not very familiar with long, dark Swedish winters), Foreign Ministers would be wise giving another geographic area some consideration.

The Baltic Sea. Just outside the meeting room.

The relocation of a Russian bronze soldier in Tallinn caused violent protests in 2007. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

The relocation of a Russian bronze soldier in Tallinn caused violent protests in 2007. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

When the Baltic States became members of Nato and the EU, their security concerns seemed to have been met. The standard of living grew quickly during the economic boom. At the same time, Russia and the EU deepened relations. Regional development was a success story, and still is to a large extent.

But the war in Georgia last year caused concern in the Baltic States. If Russia could act like this towards a former Soviet Republic in the Caucasus, how could anyone be sure it couldn´t happen in other parts of the old empire?

According to my sources, soon after the war in Georgia one Baltic government asked Nato partners for confirmation on details about how Article 5 on mutual defense would be applied in case of Russian action. That was a question better not asked, was the answer. Article 5 exists. Full stop.

This does not seem to have calmed fears down. In July, 22 well-known intellectuals and former policy-makers published a letter in Gazeta Wyborcza, urging Barack Obama not to forget Central and Eastern Europe. Among other things, the authors proposed Nato contingency planning and prepositioning of forces in case of crisis.

“It was a mistake not to commence with proper Article 5 defense planning for new members after NATO was enlarged”, wrote Valdas Adamkus, Sandra Kalniete, Mart Laar, and the other authors.

Feelings will not change to the better during the upcoming Russian Zapad 2009 exercise, reminding people in Central and Eastern Europe of the cold war and highlighting possible conflict over Kaliningrad, Belarus or the Nordstream gas pipeline. On the Russian side, future Nato enlargement and exercises such as Loyal Arrow in Northern Sweden provoke reactions.

There was some doubt in London and Berlin when the Baltic States applied for membership of Nato and the EU. Was it really possible to defend these small countries, seen by Moscow as part of Russia´s sphere of influence?

Baltic demands for military assurances are directed towards Nato. The role of the EU is different (although the solidarity clause in the Lisbon Treaty also carries obligations).

Still, building stability around the Baltic Sea is and should remain a central objective for the European Union. This calls for more efforts to promote true democracy in Russia, as well as for a Baltic Sea Strategy with sufficient funding and political commitment.

There is no need for alarmism. Any destabilizing action by Russia in the Baltic States would come with a high price for the Kremlin.

However, EU Foreign Ministers should not let Finance Ministries handle issues like the economic crisis in the Baltic States all by themselves. Budget cuts in Latvia and Estonia will hit the Russian-speaking minorities hard. Insensitive demands from Brussels and from the IMF are already being used by populist politicians to increase tensions. The conflict over the Bronze Statue in Tallinn 2007 illustrates how quickly a serious situation can develop.

Putting such scenarios on the agenda for a Gymnich meeting would probably be unwise. But thinking about long-term security issues in the Baltic Sea area is not a bad way of using spare time during the visit to Stockholm.