Treating the issue of Iran's alleged nuclear ambition as a hot potato, the European trio of Britain, Germany and France have decided to pass it on to the International Atomic Energy Agency and from there to the U.N. Security Council.
"Our talks with Iran have reached a dead end," says Germany's new Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
The truth, however, is that the trio's talks with Iran, which lasted three years, started at a dead end. And the Europeans knew that those talks would get nowhere. The talks began when Iran admitted that it had been lying to the IAEA and violating the terms of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty for 18 years, but promised not to do so again.
Legally speaking, Iran should have been referred to the Security Council at that time. The Europeans rejected American demands to that effect and decided to forgive Iran for its past sins.
In exchange, they asked Iran, in the words of then French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, to give them "something with which to silence the Americans." De Villepin had devised the scheme as a means of exposing what he called "the follies of American policy" as had been manifested in Iraq. He suggested that Iran be dealt with "the French way," which meant negotiations and compromise rather than knuckle-rapping or worse.
The Iranians welcomed the European offer because it did three things for them. First, it removed the threat of military action which, at the time, appeared to be serious. Second, the deal isolated the United States. Finally, it gave Iran time to speed up its nuclear program, whatever its ultimate goals.
Believe it or not, the Iranians were honest throughout the talks. They said they were prepared to give that "something" needed "to silence the Americans" in the form of a voluntary and temporary suspension of Iran's uranium-enrichment activities. They did not promise a permanent ban and made it clear that they would not relinquish Iran's right, under the NPT, to enrich uranium for fuel.
Interestingly, the European trio, presenting the deal as "a triumph for soft-power diplomacy," never demanded that Iran submit to a permanent end to uranium enrichment. The trio were anxious to be deceived, and were deceived by their own illusions rather than any chicanery on the part of Iran. All they were interested in was to score a point against Washington.
Even now the trio are not asking Iran to permanently forgo its right to enrich uranium. They cannot do so because the NPT recognizes that right for all nations. To make matters more complicated, the trio are now forced to deal with a much tougher Iranian partner in the person of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose political discourse is based on a dream of Iran as a major power on the global stage.
Having called the Europeans "nothing but corrupt midgets," Ahmadinejad would be the last person to let them dictate to him. He is also convinced that the United States, bedevilled by its internal divisions, has missed the opportunity to use the threat of military action against Iran. As a result, Ahmadinejad is actively seeking a diplomatic confrontation with the Europeans, plus escalating tension with the United States. He believes that he can take on both Europe and the United States and win. And if he does, he hopes he will emerge as the unrivalled master of the Islamic republic and the de facto leader of the Muslim world.
When Villepin and his British counterpart Jack Straw, plus their German colleague Joschka Fischer, initiated the talks with Teheran, they must have known that Iran had taken the strategic decision to develop a nuclear "surge capacity" as one of the three pillars of its National Defence Doctrine enacted in the early 1990s. The Europeans could not have been as naive as to believe that the Islamic republic would abandon that pillar in exchange for diplomatic niceties and an invitation to join the World Trade Organization. Incidentally, the so-called "incentive" of inviting Iran into the WTO is no longer relevant because Ahmadinejad regards the WTO as "a club of thieves and plunderers" and preaches "self-sufficiency" rather than trade as the centrepiece of his economic doctrine.
The Europeans are not prepared to acknowledge that the problem is not about uranium enrichment but about the nature of the present Iranian regime. More than 20 countries, from Argentina to Japan, and passing by Germany and Ukraine, enrich uranium without anyone making a fuss. The Iranian case is causing concern because few are prepared to trust the present leadership in Teheran not to embark upon some tragic mischief in the name of its Khomeinist ideology.
European-style appeasement, partly motivated by a desire to pull faces at Washington, has encouraged the most radical faction in Teheran and helped to bring Ahmadinejad to power. All the diplomatic gesticulations that are likely to follow will only compound that effect. The Islamic republic has had three years in which to prepare for whatever sanctions the Security Council might impose. It has also signed oil and gas contracts worth more than $70 billion with China, and arms and industrial contracts with Russia exceeding $30 billion, to make sure that at least one if not both would veto any harsh resolution against Iran.
The Khomeinist regime is one of those regimes that will not stop until they hit something hard. Why should they when they can pursue their objectives cost-free? Soft power may work only if it is backed by hard power.
And Europe has, once again, made it clear that it would oppose even the threat of hard power being used against Iran.
As things stand, all those concerned in this carnival of absurdities have reason to be happy: The Europeans get rid of the hot potato; the Bush administration finds a diplomatic fig leaf to cover its lack of an Iran policy; the Russians sell their arms; the Chinese get their oil and gas; and the Islamists in Teheran accelerate whatever mischief they might be up to in the nuclear domain.
But the problem of what to do with an awkward Iran in a new Middle East will remain unresolved.
Amir Taheri is an Iranian author and a member of Benador Associates. - Ed.