As the conflict between the West and Tehran over Iran's nuclear program enters a new, potentially hotter phase, European leaders have clearly been nudged to take greater action in response to Israel's assertive stance on possible military action against the country.
On Tuesday, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton announced that the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council -- the United States, China, Russia, France and Britain -- plus Germany had agreed to restart talks with Iran.
Ashton said she had responded positively to a letter from Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili in which he had offered new talks. "We hope that Iran will now enter into a sustained process of constructive dialogue which will deliver real progress in resolving the international community's long-standing concerns on its nuclear program," she said in a statement.
Ashton said that the goal of the talks "remains a comprehensive negotiated, long-term solution which restores international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear program." Exactly when and where the talks will take place remains unclear.
Tuesday's announcement came after weeks of increased tensions surrounding Iran's nuclear program. Following a report by the IAEA last year in which the Vienna-based body expressed its clearest concern yet that Iran was developing nuclear weapons, both the US and Europe tightened their sanctions regime. Washington targeted the activities of the Iranian central bank while Europe agreed to slap an oil embargo on Tehran beginning this summer.
Iran's nuclear program was also a key element of talks in Washington on Monday between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama. Israel has threatened air strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities and the US has likewise not ruled out a military option, though Obama has sought to rein in his Israeli counterpart. On Monday, Obama said a nuclear Iran would be "unacceptable" but insisted there was still a "window" to resolve the conflict through diplomacy. The previous day, he had told a conference that he would not "hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests," but also criticized what he called the excessive "loose talk of war."
In the past, nuclear talks with Iran have made little progress, with the latest round breaking off in failure in January 2011. The West has consistently demanded that Iran cease uranium enrichment efforts prior to making concessions of its own, while Iran continues to insist on its right to a civilian nuclear program. Tehran continues to deny that it is interested in procuring nuclear weapons.
On Wednesday, however, the difficulties the permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany are having in presenting a united front at the upcoming talks became clear, when the six powers struggled to find common ground on taking Iran to task. A 35-country meeting of the board of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was supposed to discuss the Iranian nuclear program on Wednesday, but was rapidly adjourned.
The six powers had wanted to come up with a joint statement that criticized Iran for defying UN Security Council resolutions on its nuclear program. But the Associated Press news agency quoted an anonymous Western diplomat as saying that Russia and China -- which oppose sanctions on Iran -- wanted to tone down the statement, reflecting the divide among the six powers.
On Wednesday, German commentators ponder the significance of the developments.
The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"In a move straight out of the deterrence theory textbook, Obama has made a self commitment which he will not be able to easily abandon without compromising America's credibility as a protector of Israel, not to mention many other countries in the world. There is also plenty of evidence that suggests that, with this commitment, Obama is following the aim of keeping Israel -- which has repeatedly said it would exercise its right to self-defense in the face of an existential threat -- from attacking Iran's nuclear facilities."
"Given the tense situation, a resumption of nuclear talks with Iran only provides a faint glimmer of hope. In the past, Tehran always conducted such talks whenever Iran's position looked precarious, for example to prevent or delay sanctions resolutions. So far, these negotiations were pure delaying tactics, and there was never a real willingness to compromise. But this time, the mullahs will not succeed in their time-wasting. Obama reiterated that he will give diplomacy another chance, but he has also drawn a red line for the whole world to see."
The conservative Die Welt writes:
"Make no mistake about it: The fact that Europe is now sending its foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, to Tehran again, and that US President Obama has been striking a harsh tone for several months in relation to the Iranian challenge, is solely due to the muscle-flexing by the Israelis, who project the image that they can hardly be restrained. They -- and they alone -- are responsible for the new negotiation initiatives. If they had pussyfooted around like most other countries, Tehran would soon have become a nuclear power without any problems. In the end, the Germans too would have quietly torn up the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which they signed in 1968. Thanks to the Israelis, things have turned out differently -- and that's a good thing."
"There is still time to negotiate with Iran. Certainly, diplomacy and threats of war will be part of the negotiation strategy. ( ) Intelligence agencies estimate that Iran will be capable of building a nuclear bomb by the end of this year. In light of this knowledge, the diplomats should set a time limit on the negotiations. There is no time to lose."
"And no one should place any hopes in the UN Security Council. Since the failed Syrian resolution, the council is in ruins, unable to make any tough decisions any more. In terms of Iran policy, that means that, in a worst-case scenario, the West will have to go it alone in snatching nuclear weapons out of the hands of the Iranian leadership."
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"The US president has now put the focus on the goal: Iran cannot be allowed to have nuclear weapons, and there cannot be a revival of the Cold War with players in the Middle East. That is the right strategy and the right goals. An Iran with nuclear weapons would destroy the precarious geopolitical balance in the Middle East. The danger is not that an allegedly fanatical anti-Semitic and irrational 'mullah regime' would target a bomb at Israel for the glory of Allah. Netanyahu likes to invoke this terrifying vision of a second Holocaust, but he surely knows it is a distortion of the truth."
"But the truth is hardly any more reassuring for Israel and the West. There is a much greater risk that Tehran will exploit nuclear weapons in the same way that the US and the Soviet Union successfully used them for decades -- to make itself and its allies invulnerable to attack. The bomb would be used in a quite rational way as a threat and to secure its coldly calculated aspirations to regional hegemony."
"A nuclear arms race in the Middle East involving Iran and three or four other rival states would be highly dangerous. Obama has significantly raised the stakes in the poker game over Iran's nuclear program. If he is taken at his word -- and Israel will insist on that -- then from now on, America will have to guarantee that Iran does not obtain nuclear weapons. But now that that has been set as the goal, there are fewer options available to achieve it. It's true that Obama is right when he says the dispute can be resolved without war. The West can continue to negotiate with Tehran. It can put a stranglehold on Iran's economy and hope that the regime capitulates. The West should try all these things. But one shouldn't bet on having success. 'I don't bluff," Obama said. If Tehran does not give in, he will have to prove that."
The Financial Times Deutschland writes:
"One more final chance for Tehran? Yes, but this is the very last one. In the past, talks between Iran and the permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany have led to nothing, and were suspended a year ago. Such a situation cannot be repeated. The desire for 'constructive dialogue,' voiced by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, sounds surprisingly helpless against such a background."
"One thing is clear: The talks, should they be resumed, can only make progress if the West gradually increases its threats and makes those threats credible. Agreeing to an embargo of Iranian oil was the right move. Obama is now demanding more time for diplomacy and sanctions, and that too is correct. But at the same time he has to ensure that the Iranians are aware that a US attack on Iranian nuclear facilities is a very real option."
"Because Netanyahu's window for a military intervention will close over time, it is that much more important for Obama to maintain his threat of attack and even strengthen it. So that Tehran understands that this really is the last chance."
The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:
"Obama wants to buy time in the Iranian conflict, in the hope that he can bring the regime in Tehran to its knees, or at least force it into negotiations. Prime Minister Netanyahu and his defense minister, Ehud Barak, are more impatient."
"But which message is coming across in Tehran? That they had better take Obama's warning seriously? Or that the Israelis are unpredictable? Neither of these will bring Iran to change its course. The regime will more likely come to the conclusion, one that runs totally against Western interests, that it should push ahead with the military nuclear program to protect itself against any intervention."
"The Israelis, too, know that military intervention isn't a long-term solution. But war against Iran has become a possibility, and with that comes the risk of unleashing a situation that develops its own, barely controllable, momentum."