Why Europe backs Obama on Iran

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Binyamin Ne­tanyahu seems close to order­ing a gen­eral mo­bil­i­sa­tion of his coun­try’s mil­i­tary, and Repub­li­cans in the United States are pre­par­ing for a fe­ro­cious battle with Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s ad­min­is­tra­tion, in the wake of the frame­work nu­clear agree­ment with Iran. And yet the frame­work deal has been al­most uni­ver­sally wel­comed in Europe. What ac­counts for this dis­con­nect within the West over a key re­gional and global threat?

Sev­eral fac­tors are at work. One, cer­tainly, is that Europe – or, more pre­cisely, the United King­dom, Ger­many, and France – has been en­gaged in the talks with Iran for more than a decade. Even as for­mer Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush branded Iran a part of an “axis of evil,” the key Euro­pean Union mem­bers in­sisted that diplo­macy was bet­ter than war.

And, step by step, the Euro­pean ap­proach has been vin­di­cated. Crit­i­cal to that out­come, of course, was the US in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity’s re­ports that all the ev­i­dence pointed to Iran hav­ing long ago – in 2003 – aban­doned con­crete plans to de­velop a nu­clear weapon.

It is easy to see why the Ira­ni­ans would have done so. So long as Sad­dam Hus­sein, who had launched a bru­tal eight-year war against Iran in the 1980s, and whom in­flu­en­tial Western­ers openly ac­cused of seek­ing to ac­quire nu­clear weapons, re­mained in power, the Ira­nian gov­ern­ment’s plan to de­velop nu­clear weapons fol­lowed a cer­tain re­al­ist logic. Once the US mil­i­tary ousted Sad­dam’s regime in 2003, Iran’s most acute se­cu­rity threat van­ished.

More­over, there has long been a tac­ti­cal dif­fer­ence be­tween US and Euro­pean poli­cies to­ward Iran’s nu­clear pro­gramme. At times, the US seem­ingly sought to erad­i­cate any knowl­edge of nu­clear tech­nol­ogy from a coun­try of which it is deeply sus­pi­cious, whereas the Euro­pean ap­proach was to seek re­li­able as­sur­ances that Iran would never de­velop a nu­clear weapon. At the end of the day, the US recog­nised that any re­al­is­tic pol­icy needed Euro­pean sup­port, while Euro­peans saw pre­vent­ing a rush to war by the US or Is­rael as a cen­tral pol­icy ob­jec­tive.

It should also be said that Euro­peans have never been overly im­pressed with Amer­ica’s hard­line ap­proach to­ward that other char­ter mem­ber of the axis of evil, North Korea, and its nu­clear am­bi­tions. Re­fus­ing to ne­go­ti­ate with the North Korean regime, and im­pos­ing the most strin­gent sanc­tions on it, has not stopped it from ei­ther ac­quir­ing nu­clear weapons or ac­cel­er­at­ing its devel­op­ment of both nu­clear and mis­sile tech­nolo­gies.

Among the sig­nif­i­cant is­sues that need to be sorted out be­fore the end-of-June dead­line for reach­ing a fi­nal deal with Iran is to agree on the de­tails of the grad­ual sus­pen­sion, and even­tual re­peal, of eco­nomic and diplo­matic sanc­tions against the coun­try.

While this will be the sub­ject of a fierce po­lit­i­cal battle in the US, it is likely that the Euro­pean Union will be far more will­ing to move ahead.

In­deed, Europe has sound rea­sons to lift the re­stric­tions on Ira­nian oil ex­ports. Ad­di­tional sup­plies of oil to global mar­kets will keep prices down or de­press them fur­ther. Apart from the eco­nomic gain for Europe’s economies, low oil prices yield im­por­tant strate­gic benefits – par­tic­u­larly with re­spect to con­strain­ing Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin’s re­vi­sion­ist am­bi­tions in Ukraine and else­where.

Need­less to say, the US and Europe should stick to a com­mon ap­proach on the sanc­tions is­sue. But were a more mil­i­tant pol­icy ap­proach by the Repub­li­can­con­trolled Congress to pre­vail, Amer­ica might well find that it loses the ally that makes the key dif­fer­ence for the sanc­tions’ suc­cess. In­deed, on this is­sue, the US might rapidly find it­self iso­lated from all other global ac­tors.

Europe is cer­tainly not naïve about the na­ture of the Ira­nian regime. France, with its his­tor­i­cally strong con­vic­tions on is­sues con­cern­ing nu­clear pro­lif­er­a­tion, has taken a par­tic­u­larly firm stance dur­ing the talks. But Europe is also acutely aware of the con­se­quences of the rapid in­crease in vi­o­lent con­flict and suf­fer­ing in its i mme­di­ate neigh­bour­hood; in­deed,

Euro­peans see those con­se­quences daily in the flood of refugees try­ing to reach its shores. An­other war in the Mid­dle East is clearly not in its in­ter­est.

Fi­nally, Is­rael is a key fac­tor un­der­ly­ing the dif­fer­ences be­tween the US and Europe when it comes to Iran. Though Ne­tanyahu’s shrill words still have an at­ten­tive au­di­ence in the US, most of Europe re­gards his po­si­tion as be­ing only a lit­tle short of ridicu­lous.

Thus, it is nearly cer­tain that, as­sum­ing a fi­nal agree­ment with Iran is reached in June, Europe’s back­ing for it will be unan­i­mous – or close to it – and that it will be ea­ger to sup­port Obama in his battle with op­po­nents of the deal at home. The frame­work agree­ment has vin­di­cated Europe’s ap­proach to re­solv­ing the nu­clear dis­pute. The West has ev­ery rea­son to main­tain that ap­proach in the months ahead.

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