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Thursday, March 01, 2007

Is the EU making war in Iran more likely?

EU enthusiasts boast about the EU’s “soft power” – its ability to use its economic weight and influence to influence world events without having to resort to force.

EU leaders also say they don’t want Iran to build nuclear weapons, but also don’t want to see military action. So why aren’t EU leaders using the economic clout they do have to help head off a seemingly inevitable conflict?

The prospects of either Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, or military action to prevent this happening, both represent potentially disastrous scenarios for global peace and stability.
Although European leaders have publicly stated that both are totally unacceptable, by not taking a tougher line on sanctions against Tehran, EU leaders may be increasing the chances of a war.

The Iranian leadership’s determination to build a bomb remains undimmed: Iran has ignored the February 21 deadline to comply with UN demands for a halt to uranium enrichment, and on Sunday President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad vowed to press on with the programme, which he claims is now as “unstoppable” as a “runaway train” with “no reverse gear”. Iran has also begun tests on longer range rockets (and is already able to hit the eastern edge of Europe) and it will soon be able to enrich uranium on an industrial scale.

A recent editorial in the Jerusalem Post argued that “Iran’s ambitions, unlike those of Libya and North Korea, are not just regime survival but regional and even global domination”. The article goes on to argue that a nuclear armed Iran would not scale down the scope of these ambitions, but rather would have additional leverage over its rivals in the pursuit of this agenda of aggression. This thought is the top concern of negotiators in Europe, the US and, most of all, Israel, who are trying to stop Iran building a bomb. It is also widely argued that Iran acquiring nuclear weapons would lead to a regional domino effect, with Saudi and other countries in the region following suit and building nuclear weapons, potentially creating an even more unstable situation.

It is more or less certain that Tel Aviv will not countenance a nuclear armed Iran. As several recent news reports have made it clear - if Israeli leaders believe it is necessary they will take military action to prevent what is seen by many in Israel as nothing less than an existential threat to the state.

The real deadline for resolving this situation therefore is not dictated by how long it will take Iran to produce weapons-grade uranium – but rather how long Israel will restrain itself from launching military strikes against nuclear facilities. The odds are that unless Iran changes course this will happen sooner rather than later – possibly later this year.

That means there is less time available than is often assumed for negotiators to secure a settlement with Iran that will halt uranium enrichment and prevent Iran getting the bomb. The more the process of reaching agreement is delayed, the more likely a war becomes.

For this reason, it is all the more astonishing that EU policy towards Iran is not contributing to an expeditious solution. In fact, it may be doing the opposite.

The US has for some time been urging the EU to impose tougher and wider-ranging financial sanctions on Iran, including a halt to export credit guarantee programmes for European companies doing business in Iran. With UN-wide sanctions stalled in the security council by Chinese and Russian opposition, the US has already imposed a raft of its own economic sanctions.

Iran is acutely sensitive to such economic pressures. Because of a huge baby boom following the revolution (70% of Iran’s 70 million people are under the age of 24) Iran now needs to create 800,000 to 1,000,000 new jobs a year just to hold unemployment constant. With the unemployment rate among young people estimated at nearly 50%, the current regime is rightly concerned that economic slowdown could lead to their overthrow.

Even on their own, American financial sanctions have begun to bite in Iran. With inflation rising sharply and the economy in trouble despite record oil prices, less extreme Iranian leaders have begun to openly criticise President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. After the fiery speech in which he said the nuclear programme was like a runaway train, there was unprecedented criticism of the president in the Iranian press, with one political rival openly attacking him for using “the language of the bazaar” and making an “unhelpful” speech.

But the EU members potentially have far more economic clout with Iran than the US, which has had only limited ties to Iran ever since 1979. In contrast EU members are Iran’s largest trading partner – taking 36% of all Iran’s exports and providing 40% of all its imports. However, EU leaders are not only reluctant to agree sanctions, but in fact continue to subsidise trade with Iran via export credits.

Europe’s resistance to a tougher sanctions regime is easily explained. A recent leader in the Wall Street Journal noted that Iran tops Germany's list of countries with the largest outstanding export guarantees, totalling €5.5 billion. France's export guarantees to Iran amount to about €1 billion. Italy's come to €4.5 billion, accounting for 20% of Rome's overall guarantee portfolio. Even Austria had €800 million of its exports to Iran covered by guarantees in late 2005. The UK provided £111m in export credits to the country in 2005-06.

The continuing export guarantees to Iran mean that taxpayers in Europe are underwriting trade and investment that would otherwise be deterred by the risk of doing business with a rogue regime. Since most of Iranian industry is state controlled, much of this continued European investment effectively supports the regime quite directly, and by extension, its weapons programme.

This situation was hardly improved when the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Policy, Javier Solana, circulated a controversial report to member states’ foreign ministers in early February. It argued that although Iran is well on the way to developing nuclear weapons, little can be done to prevent it, and that sanctions would not work in any case.

In response to this report, Israel suggested that the EU was the ‘weak link’ in international efforts to halt Iran’s weapons programme, with Avigdor Lieberman, the Minister for Strategic Affairs saying “This report illustrates an attitude that suggests ‘nothing can be done’. However any surrender can only encourage the aggression and ambitions of Iran to become a regional force capable of imposing its power across the entire Middle East.” (Le Figaro, 14 February)

These statements would not have gone unnoticed in Tehran, and risk undermining Europe’s negotiating clout. Denial of the effectiveness of sanctions risks creating a self-fulfilling prophesy. Moreover, there is evidence to suggest that the US-only sanctions so far in place, burgeoning economic crisis in Iran, and fear of military intervention are strengthening the hand of opposition groups, who want to see a step back from what they see as irresponsible brinksmanship on Ahmadinejad’s part.

The failure of European governments to take a tougher line on financial sanctions towards Iran blunts the effectiveness of existing sanctions, weakening domestic pressure on the Tehran government to come to the negotiating table.

Europe is in a position to impose such sanctions without international authorisation, but the current climate of myopia – placing business interests above security concerns – merely allows the present regime in Iran to buy more time. Ironically, the EU approach is probably making a dangerous war ever more likely.


zbooher said...

The German Ability for Solving the Iran Crisis with the EU

First off, let me set a record straight on this: I am by no means a professional writer or political analyst. I am a college student in New Hampshire in the US, asked to write up a blog entry correspondent to a paper I wrote. As I was reading through many of the blog entries here, I noticed more and more that Germany was a big trade partner with Iran, and I had not really realized that. The thesis of my paper (however ignorant it may come across as, being an American observing and studying European politics closely for the first time in a serious manner) was that Germany was a model nation in the EU for integration and political and cultural progress. Germany’s progress after the fall of the Berlin wall seemed to stand out to me and their technologically savvy people seemed to fit the bill, so to speak, as a model of political congruency. So please, when you’re reading this, however critical you may be of this blog entry, please remember I am rather foreign to European politics outside of what I have learned in reading the news and classroom situations, and I have also never been to Europe at all. That being said, here is what I have to say.

The crisis in Iran, in my eyes, seems like only a quasi-crisis. Obviously, an Iran with nuclear capabilities can be an apparently dangerous situation, especially when there are people (such as the author of this blog http://openeuropeblog.blogspot.com/2007/03/is-eu-making-war-in-iran-more-likely.html) who have the notion that Iran has plans of international scale violence and world domination plans. I have a few gripes with this, personally.

First off, I think that if there are any nations in the world that have just about as little political transparency as possible, Iran might fit into a list of the top ten nations on that list. It is vital to remember that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is as far away from being president in Iran save having that title. Sure, he has some political power, but remember that his views do not line up completely with what Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s do. His goals upon becoming president were about mobilizing the economy in order to make Iran a strong nation once again. Yet, with Khamenei over his head, it seems that perhaps Ahmadinejad has become the political puppet for Khamenei. Ahmadinejad is said to be ultra-conservative, but I still do not see how that lines up with his promises to Iran during his campaign process. Personally, I feel that Ahmadinejad is a hot head trying to rile the world in order to bring Iran to the forefront of the news headlines, and to try and come up with some notion of national pride. This of course is unfortunate as the population in Iran is at about 50% under 25 years of age. Any sort of goals for progress through means of aggression simply are not going to do well for Iran in the long run for the generation of young people.

It is obvious Germany is under pressure from the West. This pressure comes from Sarkozy in France, and undoubtedly the US.

The third set of sanctions on Iran might not be exactly what the West hopes it will turn out for. I think it is inevitable that Iran is going to develop a nuclear program. The most that we can hope for right now is that we can try and get more transparency in the program and try and shift it to the public sector more than all the secretive work it is being conducted under. The US simply cannot hope that a sanction is going to stop a nation like Iran, who has plenty of reasons to distrust the US in the first place, from doing something that they deem necessary. What we do know is that Iran is in a very volatile spot in the world, and with Israel right next door, with seemingly no reluctance to have to use force to put an end to Iran’s nuclear aspirations. The UN Security Council is a little blind to believe that the sanctions are truly going to work, especially when there is little pressure from China or Russia to halt the program.

After reading the opinions of many, especially in this BBC open comment forum (http://newsforums.bbc.co.uk/nol/thread.jspa?forumID=4404&edition=2&ttl=20080403180416), their ‘Have Your Say’ section, I think it is more than about time the UN and the West rethinks their policies on Israel in general. Germany obviously has closer ties to Iran with their trade relations, which can put them at an upper hand in talks with Ahmadinejad and other important figureheads. Of course, this would have to mean that Germany would have to shape up its policy a bit.

The adoption of Western doctrines, such as sanctions, clearly is not going to halt Iran’s nuclear program. At best, the West and the EU can hope for a slowed process of Iran’s uranium enrichment programs. However, if the UN can successfully try and work out issues concerning Israel and Middle-Eastern relations, it can bring more transparency to the program.

Relations with Israel and Iran are likely a long shot, but it would be a start. With Iran allegedly reprocessing plutonium (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/6966071.stm), it is absolutely crucial that the world work together in trying to bring about light of the situation for the safety of the West, the EU, the Allied forces in Iraq, and Israel as well. Germany has had a past of working towards unification of its own divided people. With so much business happening between Germany and Iran, it makes sense that two important business partners can try and work out this situation together.

If the West is to keep up with their idea that sanctions are going to work out in the long run, I think it will only inevitably spark more abhorrence for the West from Iran. Sanctions on an already economically crippled nation will do nothing to show Iranians that we do offer them the ability to be a successful nation. If the EU, especially Germany if it can bring about new policy strategies, and the West all work together to show Iran that we support the nation, but not its nuclear program, progress may be possible for the nation as well as peaceful relations.

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