Difficult Diplomacy The West Struggles to Find Correct Tone with Iran

The West has recently turned up the volume on its critique of Iran. But diplomats are also wary of closing the door on dialogue, particularly given the long list of regional problems. How far is too far?

By Yassin Musharbash and

For a time, diplomatic reserve was the name of the game. Now though, Western governments have seemed to shed their wariness of openly criticizing Iran's leadership as it continues to face ongoing demonstrations stemming from opposition concerns of massive election fraud in the presidential vote held earlier this month.

How far is too far? Western politicians are feeling domestic pressure to be more aggressive in their critique of Iran. Here, a woman at a demonstration in Los Angeles holds up Iranian currency depicting Ayatollah Ali Khamenei with his eyes cut out.

How far is too far? Western politicians are feeling domestic pressure to be more aggressive in their critique of Iran. Here, a woman at a demonstration in Los Angeles holds up Iranian currency depicting Ayatollah Ali Khamenei with his eyes cut out.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown have both gone on the offensive as has US President Barack Obama. All have demanded that Tehran refrain from violence and oppression as it seeks to put an end to the mass protests in the Iranian capital.

On Sunday, the German government also joined in the chorus of criticism. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called the violence "unacceptable" and Chancellor Angela Merkel presented a five-item catalogue of demands that includes a vote recount in the June 12 elections which saw President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad proclaimed victor.

The Greater the Violence, the Sharper the Tone

The indignant reply from Tehran quickly followed. The regime accused the West of "meddling in domestic affairs" and threatened to break off diplomatic relations with some European countries and likewise warned that it might expel their diplomats. Berlin on Monday rejected the accusations from Iran and for Foreign Ministry called in the Iranian ambassador for a chat.

It is a pattern that has become increasingly apparent in recent days: The greater the violence on the streets of Tehran, the sharper the tone becomes between Tehran and the West. Since the eruption of the protests, which initially saw hundreds of thousands of Iranians take to the streets in support of opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, Iran's leadership has relied on a familiar strategy -- that of claiming that its opponents are controlled from abroad, and from the "Great Satan" USA.

For Americans and Europeans alike, their approach to Iran has become a challenging diplomatic high-wire act. On the one hand, Western governments cannot remain silent as Iranian protestors are killed on the streets of Tehran. Demanding that Iran respect human rights is a duty of Western governments, Merkel spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm said on Monday. Growing protests in the West are also exerting pressure on leaders to take an uncompromising position.

On the other hand, though, the West is trying to avoid handing Iran a pretense that could be used to feed the country's latent nationalism and brand the protestors as being little more than foreign agents. Iran has long reacted sensitively when it comes to influence from abroad -- and it is a reflex that isn't just limited to the conservative establishment. The country is particularly skeptical of Britain, which played an outsized economic and political role in Persia in the 19th and 20th centuries, and of the US, which pulled the strings in the collapse of the Iranian government in 1953. "The last thing that I want to do," Obama said in an interview with CBS this week, "is to have the US be a foil for" those who want to blame the West for the ongoing protests.

A Number of Regional Conflicts

The European-American strategy thus far has been to avoid explicitly backing opposition leader Mousavi. Providing tacit encouragement to his supporters is simple; trying to prevent a bloodbath should the authorities crack down is much more difficult.

Plus, the West wants to keep the door to dialogue ajar. Just days before the Iranian elections, Obama repeated his offer of direct negotiations during his speech in Cairo. Now, he want to avoid an overly sharp tone in the hopes that Tehran could still show a willingness to enter into negotiations over its nuclear program.

Iran is also a player in a number of other regional conflicts which have yet to be solved. Tehran supports the Islamist radicals of Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. In Lebanon, Hezbollah receives both money and weapons from Iran. "We have to be aware that Iran's influence is great when it comes to conflicts in the Middle East," said Rolf Mützenich, a foreign policy expert with Germany's Social Democrats.

Mützenich is the head of the German-Iranian group in the Bundestag, Germany's parliament. He says that, so far, "the correct note has been struck," in Berlin's handling of the situation in Iran. Mützenich's deputy, Elke Hoff of the liberal, business-friendly Free Democrats agrees, saying that Merkel's appeals have been "completely correct." "If Iran wants to be recognized as a member of the international community and as a regional leader, then it must play by the rules."

There is, however, a chorus of voices which would like to see more. Günter Nooke, who is the German government's point-man for human rights, expressed mystification at the "relative reserved reaction from the West." He said Berlin has been "much too hesitant with the Iranian leadership." Speaking to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Nooke, a member of Chancellor Merkel's Christian Democrats, said "hardly anyone has the courage to say that the Islamic Republic of Iran does not respect human rights."

'Do We Really Believe in Our Principles?'

In the US, Republicans have begun to see an opportunity to go after Obama. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said that the president's reaction has been "timid and passive, more than I would like." Chuck Grassley, a Republican Senator from Iowa, said "if people don't think that we really care, then obviously they're going to question, 'do we really believe in our principles.'"

The diplomatic difficulties could become even trickier now that the Guardian Council has admitted that the elections were afflicted by some irregularities -- but has nevertheless refused to annul the results. Jürgen Trittin, the leading candidate for German's Green party in the campaign for general elections this autumn, has called on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to "search for a compromise." Should the election irregularities prove to have been massive, foreign policy expert Hoff says that "diplomatic relations should be reduced to a minimum."

But nobody seems to have an answer as to how the situation will develop on the mid to long term. Should the election results stand and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad remain president of Iran, how will the West approach him with his legitimacy now called into question?

"If we didn't know before, it has now become clear that the highest authority in Iran lies with the religious leader," Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said in Brussels on Monday. His country will take over the rotating European Union presidency on July 1. "Just how this will effect the way talks are conducted remains to be seen."

The EU remains interested in dialogue with Iran on a list of important issues, Bildt emphasized. "The conflict over the Iranian nuclear program is just one of them, but an important one. The necessity of speaking to Iran, and the hope for a positive outcome, are still there."

The West had hoped that a coming meeting of G-8 foreign ministers planned for Thursday in the Italian city of Triest would provide an opportunity to test the waters of diplomacy with Iran. Because Afghanistan and Pakistan are on the agenda, Iran was also invited to attend.

But by late Monday, Iran had not responded to the invitation. "With three days to go, I still do not have a reply," said Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini on Monday. "I must consider that Iran has declined the invitation. Iran has lost an opportunity by not participating in the conference."

So, too, has the West.


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