By Timothy Garton Ash (THE GUARDIAN, 01/11/07):
Europe is slouching towards another foreign policy disaster on the scale of Iraq. This disaster is called Iran. It comes in two variants. Variant one is that the US bombs Iran before George Bush leaves the White House in January 2009. Variant two is that Iran acquires a nuclear bomb. Most Europeans are hyper-alert to the first danger and blind to the second. We should be acting now, urgently and decisively, to fend off both. Instead, we are sleepwalking to a cliff’s edge.
I don’t need to spell out the manifold perils of military action nor, I hope, to emphasise that no moral equivalence between Tehran and Washington is implied. But why don’t we also grasp the other danger? A quarter of a century ago millions of people flooded through the streets of Bonn, London and Rome to protest against the deployment of American nuclear missiles – and even against civilian nuclear power. (“Atomkraft? Nein, Danke.”) Now a fissiparous, unstable and increasingly militarised Islamic regime, whose president has called for Israel to be removed from the map, is deliberately proceeding towards the threshold where it could, if it chose, swiftly take the last step to having a nuclear weapon. Among the probable consequences would be a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, with Sunni Muslim powers such as Saudi Arabia deciding they need their own.
Where are the German, British or Italian intellectuals and peace activists raising the alarm about this? Where have all the demos gone? Nuclear proliferation makes the risk of the actual use of nuclear weapons greater than in those last years of the cold war, though the scale of annihilation would be smaller. You may object that Israel, Pakistan and India already have their bombs. Yes, that’s bad, and the west has flagrant double-standards in respect of India and Israel – but this is no argument for letting others obtain their own instruments of mass carnage. Four wrongs don’t make a right.
So if Europe is not to betray its own values and interests, we must try to head off both these risks. (It is true, but futile, to note that the US has over the last decade squandered several opportunities for constructive engagement. We are where we are.) For several years now, Germany, France, Britain and the EU’s Javier Solana have taken the lead in nuclear negotiations with Iran, aided and abetted by the International Atomic Energy Authority, and more or less (often less) supported by the US, Russia and China. Two UN resolutions have stepped up the pressure on Iran. No breakthrough is in sight. Iran goes on constructing its centrifuges while the US, losing patience, has just unilaterally imposed another raft of punitive sanctions, targeted particularly at the Revolutionary Guards.
Urgency now comes from two election timetables: the American one, which we all know, and the Iranian one, with parliamentary elections next March and presidential elections in 2009. Both Iranian elections will affect, though not decide, the course the country takes. Everything Europe does should be calculated for its impact on that complex political and social dynamic in Iran, as well as on the US. Yet, paralysed by its own internal differences and lack of effective foreign policy machinery, the EU does almost nothing. A drunken snail would move faster.
What should we do? We should propose, in close consultation with the US, and as far as possible with Russia and China, a bold twin-track approach. This involves both a big carrot and a big stick. The big carrot should be the offer of talks without any preconditions on anything the Islamic Republic wants to talk about, from the interpretation of holy books (the subject of a learned letter from President Ahmadinejad to President Bush), to a regional conference around Iraq, to arrangements for nuclear power, trade, investment and full normalisation of relations with the US. The prize here is to bring the US and Iran to negotiate directly. This means getting both sides off the hooks on which they have hung themselves: the US says it won’t talk unless Iran first suspends uranium enrichment and Iran says, in effect, that it won’t do this unless the US talks. To achieve this will require large helpings of compromise, fudge and pretence – but, hey, that’s diplomacy.
It will also require more effective pressure. If the pressure is not to be military, it can only be economic. The US has now done almost all it can economically, including frightening European banks off financing trade with and investment in Iran, but it does not itself have a major commercial relationship to withhold. Europe does. According to the European commission, 27.8% of Iran’s trade last year was with the EU, making it the country’s biggest trading partner. One third of Iran’s imports came from the EU. Italy was its biggest single European trading partner, while Germany remains by far the largest European exporter to the Islamic republic.
Many of these exports are supported by export credit guarantees, which become all the more important as private banks pull out. Germany has cut back on new export credit guarantees to Iran in recent years, after a guarantee-backed export boom between 2000 and 2005, but the total amount of current guarantees remains relatively stable and very significant. Britain has a current exposure of some £350m. The responsible senior official in the German economics ministry told me yesterday that Germany’s total commitment is around €5bn (about £3.5bn) – 10 times as much. Italy also has a large sum guaranteed. Here is our big European stick, which we should brandish as we continue to talk softly.
Now there is, you will not be surprised to hear, some argument in the polished corridors of Europe on this very point. Britain and – the great novelty – Sarkozy’s France are prepared to stop new export credit guarantees, either in a coordinated EU action (the union already has tighter sanctions than those prescribed by the last UN security council resolution), or in a third UN security council resolution. Italy, Germany and other European countries are resisting. The key, as so often, lies with Germany, the continent’s central power. To curb export credit guarantees would be painful. It would hit specific German and Italian companies hard. It would cost jobs, in countries desperate to keep them. It would go against the whole foreign policy tradition of the Federal Republic of Germany, which has regarded foreign trade as a good in itself, almost a holy cow.
Other serious arguments can be advanced against such sanctions. Wouldn’t China and Russia be delighted to step into the breach? (To some extent, they already have.) Would these measures hit the right, or precisely the wrong targets among the Iranian elites? Wouldn’t they, like military action, provoke ordinary Iranians to rally behind the regime? I share these doubts. But what better alternative do we have? To go on waffling till the Americans bomb or the Iranians get the bomb? That would be a characteristic European way, but a bad one.
The time for hard choices has come. To be credible in Tehran, to be credible in Washington, and, last but by no means least, to be credible to its own citizens, Europe must be prepared to put its money where its mouth is.