EU and Iran: No Chance for Sanctions to Work

Iran is perhaps the most striking example of the chasm that today separates the EU from the United States, a divorce of sorts that has only been aggravated by Iraq. There are echoes of Cold War Ostpolitik, when West Germany separated its position towards the Soviet Union from its presumed ally and would-be-protector, the United States. At that time it attracted the ire of America and created lasting tensions inside the western alliance. We are probably right at that point today.

Clearly, nuclear-armed, theocratic Iran is both a lot different and more dangerous then the Soviet Union. It should be every rational person’s nightmare and this includes most Middle Eastern people. But many Europeans, always eager to “show them Yanks”, fail to see the danger involved from a nuclear armed Iran, a country that cannot be constrained by the old MAD (mutual assured destruction) doctrine, which may be exactly what Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmedinejad craves. What Europeans also fail to see is that Israel, the country that Ahmedinejad wants “wiped out from the face of the earth”, simply cannot let Iran develop nuclear weapons. Here is our simple and plain view: There will be a war with Iran, probably in 2008.

Understandably, current world attention has been distracted on Pakistan, potentially the most dangerous country in the world. But Iran should still hold pole position. It was only a few years ago that Pakistan, responding to the perverse aspirations of hundreds of millions, developed the “Islamic bomb”, which Pervez Musharraf has managed, thus far, to control. But Iran may be the most obvious beneficiary of the rogue-to- hero, depending on one’s point of view, scientist Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan’s nuclear proliferation.

There is not a cat-in-hell’s chance that sanctions, UN imposed (December, 2006), or the US unilateral sanctions (March 2007), could working against Iran. The EU-27 is Iran’s largest trading partner and the EU’s major trading companies fear that China, Iran’s second largest trading partner (and growing), will steal their markets if they turn the embargoing screw more than they already have (which is very little).

In 2006 the EU traded over 25 billion euros with Iran, about evenly balanced between exports and imports. China runs a distant second with about 11 billion. Of course, Iran has a lot to offer of what Europeans really want: energy sources. Iran beckons seductively as a diversification from Russia’s emerging stranglehold on the EU as a dominant energy supplier, especially in natural gas. Russia is practicing already what can only be called “energy imperialism” and Europeans would be inclined to make alliances with two different devils.

Something that does not make the news, touching exactly the most sensitive issue of nuclear technology/proliferation, is that Iran could benefit Europeans (and Americans) enormously. Perhaps some in the EU know this. Today Iran may be the one major country in the world that uses a lot of oil, more than 2 million barrels per day, for power generation. The United States and EU use virtually no oil for electricity generation. Natural gas would have been a far more obvious source and Iran, ostensibly with the second largest natural gas reserves in the world after Russia, should have done that. Sanctions have hurt Iran in this respect and peaceful nuclear development for power generation would make a lot of sense, freeing a huge chunk of oil for the international market. Such an infusion would relieve oil price pressures tremendously. If only Iran could be trusted.

It is clear that the EU carries real trade clout with Iran – if it could act against Iran with a unified voice. Quite simply, the EU is far from able to act as a unified entity (on foreign policy at least). What EU bureaucracy would like to do and what it can do in the face of national self-interest of its member states are two different things. But if what is governing the multicultural EU’s – and perhaps the UN’s – timid approach is the great fear that an attack on Iran will be been seen as an attack on a unified Muslim world, then it is pure illusion. What it fails to grasp is that Sunni and Shia Muslims have been at each other’s throats for as long as Islamists generally have contested the Judeo-Christian hegemony.

Over the last year around a dozen Muslim regimes – all Sunni – have declared that they too want to go nuclear. In some cases the genuine shortage of electricity in the region is a factor. But, early in 2007, Jordan’s King Abdullah countered that as the main reason, saying, "The rules have changed on the nuclear subject throughout the whole region. After this summer [referring to Iran’s proxy war with Israel in south Lebanon] everybody’s going for nuclear programs." The regional nuclear push is then the result of fear of Shia Iran and its regional ambitions. The predominantly Sunni Middle East does not want a nuclear Iran any more than the West does.

Unable to turn the only trade sanctions screw that could really hurt Iran, the EU has no more clout than the UN. And if EU fear of countenancing force is itself a fear of a “Muslim world” backlash then, as the nuclear surge issue reveals, they need to ‘get real’. Because, ignoring the usual protesting for-public-consumption rhetoric, in the event of a US-Israeli strike in Iran most of the “Muslim world” would be on the side of the West.