Ausgabe 16/2007

EU Diplomacy Takes a Beating The Failure of Europe's Iran Policy

It took Europe months to get American support for its strategy of negotiating with Iran. Tehran's latest announcement that it can enrich uranium on an industrial scale shows that the EU course has failed.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad proclaiming Iran's ability to enrich uranium on an industrial scale.
Getty Images

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad proclaiming Iran's ability to enrich uranium on an industrial scale.

The toughest questions were discussed over lunch. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier even suggested that his counterparts remove their ties -- he wanted nothing to stand in the way of blood flowing to the brains of Europe's chief diplomats, as they came together at Bremen's exclusive Park Hotel on the weekend before Easter to tackle the most sensitive problem now facing world politics.

When Ertugrul Apakan, the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs Undersecretary, took to the podium, he quickly shattered European hopes of being able to stop Tehran from moving forward with its nuclear plans using diplomacy.

International sanctions, Apakan granted, were not doing the Iranian economy any favors. Nevertheless, he went on, the high price of oil ensures that Iran is in excellent financial condition. Besides, said Apakan, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's refusal to buckle in the face of pressure from the West is very popular in Iran.

Apakan wasn't done, however. Tehran hardliners, he said, have received a valuable boost from US policy in the region. Washington's military campaigns have eliminated two of Iran's former enemies: the Taliban in Afghanistan and Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein. America is now so weakened that it is unlikely to embark on another armed conflict in the Gulf region. "The international situation is very favorable for Iran," Apakan concluded.

The Turkish guest in Bremen could have gone even further, but he proved too polite to thoroughly analyze the role of those foreign ministers present at the conference. Had he done so, he might have told them that they too are in no position to intimidate the Iranians. Hesitancy seems to be the name of the game when it comes to EU's leading members: France and Britain are both paralyzed due to approaching elections, and Iran's two big trading partners Italy and Germany are reluctant to impose tougher sanctions. In assessing the European position, a German Iran expert said: "We are in an extremely weak situation."

Nuclear fuel on an industrial scale

Tehran demonstrated just how weak hardly 10 days after the Bremen conference. On Iran's "National Day of Nuclear Energy" last Monday, President Ahmadinejad stood in front of the country's nuclear facility in Natanz and announced that he was "proud that Iran is now one of the nations producing nuclear fuel on an industrial scale. Our country joined the club of nuclear nations today." He said that Iran has now installed 3,000 centrifuges to enrich uranium, compared to only 164 the previous year.

The international reaction likely came as no surprise to Ahmadinejad. EU president Germany quickly expressed its "great concern," and US national security spokesman Gordon Johndroe said last week that "Iran continues to defy the international community." Moscow even went so far as to call it a "provocation."

These reactions however -- strong as they may have been -- could do nothing to hide the fact that offers, threats and sanctions have proven completely ineffective and Tehran, undeterred by the global community, continues pursuing its nuclear program. The nightmare of an atom bomb in the hands of the mullahs is becoming increasingly likely.

For awhile last year, the situation looked different. Following a series of tough negotiations, the Europeans were finally able to convince the United States to support their approach. Instead of exerting pressure on Tehran through saber-rattling, Europe thought it could convince Iran to change course with a mixture of incentives and penalties. Even Russia and China, both veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council, got on board. But the strategy has one major problem: it doesn't seem to be working.

Another proud announcement from Tehran

For almost four years now, the Europeans have been trying to steer Iran away from its nuclear plans. But the story is always the same: The West appeals to Iran to be reasonable and issues the occasional threat, to which the Tehran regime responds by proudly announcing that it has just completed another step on the road to becoming a nuclear state. The West is outraged and meets for talks. Then come new appeals, new threats and, a short time later, yet another proud announcement from Tehran.

The German Chancellery has tried desperately to put a positive spin on the Europeans' failures by claiming that international isolation has already caused a "significant upheaval" within the Tehran leadership. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Steinmeier floats from one week to the next on little more than diplomatic niceties. The release on April 5 of the 15 British hostages accused by Tehran of having trespassed into Iranian waters was a "starting point" toward resolving the nuclear dispute, Steinmeier claimed. But, he went on, the Europeans should do everything possible to avoid an "escalation."

What Germans think about Iran.

What Germans think about Iran.

As the current holders of the rotating EU presidency, the Germans play a key role on the Iran issue. But Berlin has strictly rejected a change in the EU's approach, despite growing doubts at home over the effectiveness of the current policy. Steinmeier's predecessor Joschka Fischer, now a guest professor at Princeton University in the United States, has called for a new European initiative. The EU, says Fischer, should accommodate the Americans and "pay a high, possibly very high economic price and decisively expand the sanctions against Iran." In return, Fischer believes, Washington would have to offer the mullahs direct talks.

But Eberhard Sandschneider, Director of the Research Institute of the German Council on Foreign Relations, is convinced that "sanction-mongering" is generally pointless. "Sanctions have never worked," he says -- identifying this failure as one of the primary reasons for the West's helplessness when it comes to Tehran.

Dissuading Iran

Iran, on the other hand, "is playing its cards brilliantly" in Sandschneider's estimation. Only the threat of military strikes or concrete incentives from the United States, says Sandschneider, could convince the Iranians to abandon their nuclear ambitions. Otherwise, he adds, the Europeans will have to get used to an adversary with nuclear capabilities -- and start thinking about defensive measures, such as the controversial missile defense system.

Volker Perthes, director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, a federally funded think tank, also wants to see a shift in policy. The West, he says, should loosen its rigid conditions for negotiations with Iran. "We must back down from the demand that Iran stop enrichment before we negotiate," says Perthes, adding that it is "no longer possible to dissuade Iran from independently enriching uranium."

More than two years ago, the West rejected Iran's demand that it be allowed to operate 20 centrifuges for research purposes. The result, according to Perthes, is that Iran now has an estimated 1,000 centrifuges. "You always negotiate from the platform you have," says Perthes, "and the longer we wait with a treaty, the more unfavorable the conditions become."

Perthes's comments are borne out by current developments. Each month in which Iran can continue thumbing its nose at Europe and at the "Great Satan" (the United States) is immediately celebrated as a success. Many Iranians still feel a deep-seated humiliation over the perception that their country has often been a pawn for foreign powers. Even regime critics see the demonstration of a new self-confidence, as when the British naval patrol was detained, as teaching the West a well-deserved lesson.

Much further along

The Iranian president's provocative nuclear announcements indicate that Tehran no longer fears the West, not even the United States. The regime assumes that the Americans will need Iran's help if it wants to prevent the war in neighboring Iraq from turning into a new Vietnam. For this reason, hardly anyone in Tehran expects Washington to launch a military attack against Iran's nuclear facilities.

But even an attack could come in handy for a hardliner like Ahmadinejad. To divert attention away from criticism of his regime and problems on the home front, the president has astutely painted uranium enrichment as a question of "national pride." Public dissatisfaction is on the rise with one in four Iranians unemployed, real inflation estimated at close to 20 percent and the mullahs' nepotism crippling the country. But further sanctions would force large segments of the population to support the president, even if they disapprove of his overconfidence.

The estimated $50 billion in annual revenues the country earns from oil exports enables Iran to maintain a powerful military machine, which cost the state $6.6 billion in the last year alone. A large share of the country's military spending allegedly goes into missile development, which someday could prove to be a complement to a military nuclear program.

The West's only hope is that Ahmadinejad could have been bluffing when he announced last week that Iran is now capable of producing nuclear fuel on an industrial scale. However, the International Atomic Energy Agency's last round of inspections revealed that the Iranians are much further along than was previously assumed.

On paper, at least, Iran has been a nuclear power for some time. The government issued new banknotes in March. While other countries adorn their currencies with famous structures or prominent citizens, Tehran has made it clear where its priorities stand. An atomic symbol is emblazoned on Iran's new bills.

By Dieter Bednarz, Ralf Beste, Konstantin von Hammerstein and Marcel Rosenbach

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


© DER SPIEGEL 16/2007
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