Europe Blinked: The US-EU Negotiations on Iran

18 March 2005
Phyllis Bennis

Europe Blinked: The US-EU Negotiations on Iran
Phyllis Bennis
Institute for Policy Studies, 18 March 2005

Despite the Bush administration's and media spin that the US and Europe both compromised to create a unified policy towards Iran, the reality is far more unbalanced. Europe -in this case the "E-3" governments of Britain, France and Germany, collapsed under US pressure and accepted Washington's demands to ratchet up the pressure on Iran. To be sure, the European surrender included a thin veneer of political cover for London, Paris and Berlin. But the new "unified" trans-Atlantic approach to Iran is thoroughly rooted in the US preference for military threats over diplomatic engagement.

The earlier US rejection of Europe's effort to seriously engage Iran on the question of its nuclear facilities and specifically its uranium enrichment capacity remains largely intact. The US, with great fanfare, "accepted" Europe's approach of offering small economic carrots to Iran, but stipulated that such carrots would be made available only AFTER Tehran implemented a permanent halt to its nuclear production program. And the carrots themselves are of limited value. Access to imported spare parts for civilian aircraft, useful but hardly likely to match the importance Tehran places on its nuclear program, would be made available only on a case-by-case basis. And allowing Iran to apply for membership in the WTO only begins a process that takes years or decades to complete and would require such massive shifts in Iran's domestic economy that it remains unclear whether Iran even intends such a move.

What Washington did not give up was its continuing threat of military force - whether bombing or allowing Israel to bomb alleged nuclear facilities or full-scale "regime change" - against Iran. In what was called a compromise but was in fact a major abandonment of the European Union's longstanding commitment to diplomatic engagement, the E-3 not only accepted Washington's militarized approach but agreed to join it. Europe essentially abandoned the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The E-3's letter to the president of Luxembourg, currently presiding over the European Union, described a situation of no progress, despite Iran's current internationally-verified halt in enrichment activities. The letter also supported the US intention to hand the issue over to the UN Security Council (which would then be pressured to authorize harsh multi-lateral sanctions or even military force against Iran) if Tehran does not accept the demand to make its current nuclear halt permanent.

A different approach, far more consistent with longstanding European commitments to use diplomacy over force, would have been be to work for strengthening, rather than discarding, the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to which Iran is a signatory. Such an approach would include pressuring Tehran - along with every other non-nuclear state - to ratify and implement the NPT's optional protocol allowing for no-notice, highly intrusive inspections of nuclear facilities when the IAEA has reason for suspicion. It would also mean reconfirming and beginning implementation of the obligations the NPT imposes on nuclear weapons states (the US, Britain, France, China and Russia) to move towards full nuclear disarmament.

But instead, the US-E-3 agreement brought European acquiescence to, and willingness to provide international legitimacy for, Washington's unilateral claim of the right to impose its will around the world. Europe agreed to toss international law out the window. As the New York Times acknowledged, without a hint of outrage or even unease, "the statements made clear that the West would not tolerate Iran's enriching uranium for civilian nuclear energy, despite international accords that allow it.

The reference is to the fact that the NPT allows non-nuclear states to generate nuclear energy including the production of enriched uranium. The NPT calls for inspections, by the International Atomic Energy Agency, to deal with disputes, and Iran has accepted those inspections

Europe, not the US, made all the serious concessions. Along with accepting the US mandated referral to the Security Council if Iran rejects an imposed permanent halt of enrichment activities and/or an imposed timetable, Europe gave up two important positions. First, it agreed to drop its longstanding rejection of selectivity in enforcing nuclear non-proliferation. Specifically, Europe has long recognized that imposing demands for ending nuclear production on one country, while allowing other non-nuclear states to carry out such production, simply won't work. So if other non-nuclear signatories to the NPT, such as South Korea, Brazil, South Africa or others are carrying out nuclear enrichment programs as allowed under the NPT without challenge, confronting Iran alone will likely fail. Second, it appears that Europe - or at least the E-3 - now support Washington's assertion that even with instruments of multi-lateral arms control like those in the NPT, Iran's nuclear power can never be reliably surveilled or prevented from misuse. What this may signal is that key European powers are themselves prepared to abandon rather than reinforce the NPT, a long-sought goal of the unilateralists central to the Bush administration.

Further, the White House rejected the idea of a US-Iran non-aggression pact, something that might reduce Iran's ambition for nuclear weapons. Nor was there mention of even considering an end to the punitive unilateral sanctions the US has imposed on Iran since 1979. To the contrary, in an aggressive move largely unreported in the US press, on the night before the high-profile announcements of a new "US-European unity" regarding Iran, President Bush announced he was extending the existing sanctions regime against Iran. According to Agence France Presse, on the night of March 10, Bush renewed the executive order first imposed by Bill Clinton in March 1995. In his order Bush called Iran a "significant and unusual threat" and accused Iran of supporting international terrorism, undermining the Middle East peace process, and attempting to obtain weapons of mass destruction. On March 13 Bush's new national security adviser, Stephen Hedley, told CNN that the Europeans were now also supporting Washington's claims regarding Iran's violations of human rights and alleged support of terrorism. This marked a major reversal of the earlier European stance that the negotiations with Iran should focus solely on the nuclear threat.

Bush's renewed executive order went even further, claiming that "the actions of Iran contradict the interests of the US in this region, and pose a lasting, significant threat to the national security, foreign policy and economy of the United States of America." But in fact, in abandoning serious diplomacy in favor of the threats and potential use of force, it is this latest US-European alliance against Iran that represents the potentially greatest significant threat to the US since the illegal invasion of Iraq two years ago.