European Affairs

This Time Europe Got its Act Together     Print Email

Daniel VernetWho exactly was it that sounded the alarm about nuclear subterfuge threat in Iran and the possibility that Tehran might be trying to build nuclear weapons? It remains a slightly open question. France’s President Jacques Chirac or Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin? Or was it Joschka Fischer, Germany’s top diplomat at the time? What is known is that reactions crystallized in Europe, in May 2003, when Chirac sounded the alarm at an international conference on drugs in Paris.

Washington had already been alerted to the problem thanks to information passed along by Iranian dissidents (initially the People’s Mujahedin) about centrifuges set up at secret sites in Iran and not reported to the International Atomic Energy Agency. But the Bush administration had its hands full with Iraq and European officials were worried that Washington was not paying enough attention to the Iranian dossier.

So they decided that it was time for Europe to take on the problem. To put it bluntly, some European diplomats explain privately, they felt compelled to take action fast because they were worried about what Washington might do otherwise. They feared the Bush administration might suddenly ‘wake up’ to the problem and react militarily with an intervention that most Europeans saw as disastrous.

Now negotiations with the Iranians have gone on for three years, marked by repeated setbacks and some temporary breakthroughs. But at the end of 2006, the talks appear to have reached a dead end: the Iranians refuse to comply with the international community’s demand that they suspend uranium enrichment in their country.

Have the Europeans spent three years working on the issue for nothing? If that proves to be the case, it would be a setback for them, not only on the substance but also because their Iranian initiative was an attempt to put into practice the common defense and security policy that they have been striving to set up for years. It also represents an attempt to succeed geopolitically with the soft power approach that the Europeans are quick to promote as an alternative to the hard power that Washington prides itself on wielding.

The so-called “E-3” approach – bringing together France, Germany and Great Britain as a team – is an innovation in European collective policy-making. At first glance, it seems to be a natural format, bringing together the three countries that are, economically and/or diplomatically, the three most influential member states of the European Union. But this E-3 trio was not the “troika” that Mr. Chirac originally had in mind when he started planning a “European” approach to the Iranian nuclear dossier. His initial idea, in summer 2003, was to use the same tripartite French-German- Russian front that worked together a few months earlier in opposing the U.S.-led war in Iraq; he had approached both German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Russians declined to go along: they have never offered an explanation of their reasoning, but their motives could include both a wish to avoid aggravating tensions with Washington and a desire to protect Moscow’s military and economic ties with Tehran.

With the Russians out, France and Germany turned to Britain. The three countries’ foreign ministers – de Villepin, Fischer and Jack Straw – arrived together in Tehran on October 21, 2003. They met with Hassan Rohani, the representative of Iran’s leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, on the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), and reached an agreement with him. The deal proved short-lived, but it marked the birth of the “E-3” – which only became the “EU- 3” a few months later when the joint effort expanded to include Javier Solana, the High Representative of the European Council, who is “Mr. EU foreign-and security-policy.”

This team has stayed intact through the ups and downs of the confrontation with Iran, and its success raises a question: How did these three countries (and the EU) unite on the Iranian issue in a way that contrasts so sharply with the way they split so openly (among themselves and with the United States) over Iraq only a few months earlier? When the question is phrased that way, it almost answers itself: It was precisely because they had clashed so badly in the Iraq crisis that these three European governments needed a cause around which they could cooperate and achieve a degree of reconciliation.

While not seeing eye-to-eye on European integration, all three of these countries realize that, when they are divided, Europe’s nations do not count heavily in international affairs. Even if he does not publicly acknowledge it, Tony Blair knows perfectly well that his close ties with George W. Bush have not given him any influence on U.S. policy. In the run-up to the Iraq war, Paris and London pursued diametrically opposed policies – with France resisting the U.S. plan and Britain supporting Washington. Both failed. France was unable to prevent the war. Britain was unable to wean U.S. policy away from American unilateralism. So it was logical to conclude that by joining forces instead of fighting each other, the leading EU states might be able to use the Iranian nuclear issue to prove that Europe could come up with an effective alternative to the forceful tactics advocated by the Bush administration.

Along with this general consensus about the need to show European unity, there were other factors at work in each capital. In London, Jack Straw comes from a British Socialist background that traditionally has been pacifist and not pro-European; but if “Europe” can help resolve a crisis by negotiation instead of by military force, he is all for it. And Britain, generally speaking, has always wanted to be part of any and all European undertakings that seem likely to succeed. German motives were different. Germany has major economic interests in Iran. And after having said no to Washington over Iraq, Berlin wanted to do whatever it could to avoid being put in the position of having to make that choice again. And Germany always wishes to support anything that seems likely to strengthen European integration. Italy also has interests at stake in Iran, but refused initially to take part in the group on the grounds that it did not want to see “factional activities” in the EU. The Italians subsequently changed their mind and wanted to join the E-3 initiative, but they were rebuffed.

France was influenced by its longstanding concern about the risks of nuclear proliferation. This French preoccupation often comes as a surprise to outsiders because France has often set a bad example – i.e., when Chirac resumed nuclear testing in 1995, a year when the world was observing the 50th anniversary of Hiroshima. But France has been very active in opposing efforts by other countries to develop the bomb.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty limits the number of nuclear-weapons states to a club of five, including France: France wants to protect its status, and it has the expertise about nuclear arms to be a vigilant watchdog against attempts to spread this weapons technology. On top of these strategic reasons, there are some personal considerations guiding French policy. Chirac is deeply suspicious of the Iranian regime – an attitude that dates back to the 1980s, just after the Iranian revolution. As mayor of Paris and then as prime minister for two years, Chirac had to grapple with Iranian backed terrorism in the French capital. He views Shi’a Muslims as prone to fanaticism and has warned George W. Bush about Iran, saying in effect “there are no hardliners, no moderates: they are all the same.”

The E-3 group is an example of “enhanced cooperation” in foreign policy – a mechanism that enables a few member states to act together in the name of the entire EU of 25 member states. In this case, the proper institutional procedures were not fully implemented at the outset, and so the E-3 only became the “EU-3” when Solana was asked to come on board. His office has a responsibility to keep the trio aware of the thinking among the rest of the 25 member states – most of which are inclined to take a softer line with Tehran – and to inform the other 22 about what positions the EU-3 take. This has not always been an easy task because Paris, London and Berlin have not been on the same page at every step of the way.

And yet the troika has worked. It speaks, by proxy, in the name of the 25- member EU. It fills in for the United States at moments when Washington is not engaging fully on the issue. In fact, the Europeans got involved in the first place largely because the Bush administration had its hands full with Iraq and was not particularly ready to tackle the Iranian issue. Moreover, Washington did not have a clear idea about how to tackle the nuclear issue; it did not even know how it could negotiate with a government with which it has no official contacts; and it did not want to open a third military front in addition to Iraq and Afghanistan. These reasons explain why the Europeans got involved and why the Americans were ready to let them do so. At the outset, Washington kept a skeptical eye on the Europeans’ negotiations with Tehran, without offering any encouragement or help – but also without doing anything to derail the European initiative. In the U.S. view, it could only be good news if the Europeans succeeded; if they failed, it would be further proof that soft power cannot do the job. It would provide a come-uppance for sermonizing Europeans, starting with that Dominique de Villepin, the French foreign minister who had “put a knife in the back’’ of Secretary of State Colin Powell at the UN in February 2003.

The inclusion of Britain in the troika provided a guarantee that it would not do anything contrary to U.S. interests. Indeed, the three European governments were careful to keep the Bush administration constantly apprised about each step in the negotiations with Tehran. The U.S. attitude took a more positive turn after Bush’s re-election when Condelezza Rice took over the State Department and set about mending fences with the European allies, particularly with “old Europe,” essentially the French-German axis descried by the first Bush administration. The Bush trip to Europe in February 2005 firmed up Transatlantic cooperation on this issue.

From then on, the EU-3 and Solana have managed to maintain a fine diplomatic balance. On the one hand, the Europeans took a tough enough line with Iran to maintain American confidence and support, essentially by sticking to the Western position that Tehran must suspend its uranium enrichment activities before Europe can move to deliver on its promised incentives. But at the same time, the Europeans showed willingness to negotiate with Tehran – an attitude that kept the Russians and Chinese from breaking ranks about the threat of sanctions against Iran, which both Moscow and Beijing are clearly reluctant to impose.

This “united international community” – which Europeans are justly proud of – may be on the point of crumbling, for several reasons. There is a limit to how long this alignment (which can be described as the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany or as the EU-3 plus the U.S., Russia and China) can continue. After the decision in December to impose sanctions, it is unclear how long this team can put off deciding whether and how far to impose additional sanctions if the showdown continues to escalate. Increasingly, Europeans seem to be tempted to adopt a more passive line because they are afraid of what Hezbollah might do in Lebanon under orders from Iran (and Syria) as reprisals for sanctions. Chirac, who was one of the most determined leaders in seeking to scotch the risk of nuclear proliferation, is now looking for a way out that avoids tougher sanctions on Iran. The United States may have to make more compromises, too, if it decides that it has to start talking to Tehran and Damascus to get their help in stabilizing the situation in Iraq. Washington may have to pay a price for support in Iraq, by concessions to Syria about Lebanon and over the nuclear issue to Iran. Regardless of whether they want to use hard power or soft, Western governments find that they are not holding the trump cards in this situation.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 7, Issue number 3-4 in the Fall/Winter of 2006.

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