The decision last week by Iran to resume processing of uranium at its nuclear facility in Isfahan after a nine-month hiatus is obviously an act of defiance. Greeted with great consternation here in France, it is widely perceived to be an act of affront against European efforts at engagement with Iran. French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy called the development a "grave crisis" and said that it was "particularly alarming" that a change had taken place in the spirit in which the two sides had been negotiating.
The offer made by the Europeans to dissuade Iran from this dangerous course of action involved furnishing Iran with nuclear fuel for its civilian nuclear program, fuel that could be accounted for and returned to the West for treatment and storage. In addition, it also included economic, technical and security assistance. It was a very good deal if the civilian uses of nuclear power were what this was all about. It never was, of course. The obvious explanation is that Iranians overwhelmingly believe they need a nuclear weapon and are determined to get one.
The French concern over the Iranian position was echoed by German Foreign Minister Joschka Fisher, who warned of "disastrous consequences." That clear message, regrettably, was unhelpfully diluted on Sunday by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who is in full election-campaign mode. In an interview, Mr. Schroeder ruled out any German participation in a military option against Iran, responding to a statement by President Bush, who has stated that "all options are on the table." The focus should, of course, remain squarely on Iran's flagrant breach of commitments made last November to Britain, France and Germany to refrain from the reprocessing of nuclear fuel in return for a package of incentives. This initiative was backed by the United States in an attempt to get Washington and Europe on the same page against Iran. Despite the currently impasse, it remains essentially the right approach.
Europeans have usually been all too swift in shifting the blame to the United States. They like to complain that Americans still harbor an irrational antipathy against Iran for the 1979 hostage-taking. Thanks, however, to the implacable attitude of Iran's hardline government, as well as the decision made in March by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to back European negotiations with Iran, the tables have been turned. Iran is correctly perceived here to be the problem.
Comments Le Monde: "From the point of view of the Americans, there is at least one positive aspect in the crisis with Iran: It has brought the United States and Europe together. The radicalization observed by Tehran after the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has silenced the transatlantic disagreements over how to analyze the Iranian regime and its pretensions to become a nuclear power: what the hawks call the hidden benefits of the Iranian election." Writes Le Figaro: "The only choice for the western countries is to remain united in their determination. There is no more legitimate cause than preventing a regime openly dedicated to destroying Israel and supporting terrorist movements from acquiring nuclear weapons." This unexceptional sentiment is hardly what one expects from the French press.
It is crucial for Americans and Europeans to be on the same side if we are to have a comprehensive strategy for dealing with Iran, one that features real sticks and carrots. It is at least progress that Europeans now talk about referrals to the U.N. Security Council. Any action in the Security Council, however, will almost certainly be blocked by China and Russia. This means that the credible threat of force must be part of such a strategy.
Iran has to be persuaded not just of the benefits of cooperating with European offers, but urgently also of the costs of pursuing its dangerous quest for nuclear weapons. The estimated timeframe before Iran becomes a nuclear power is between one to 10 years, depending on which intelligence agency you listen to. It does not leave us much time.
The costs for Iran associated with pursuit on nuclear ambitions should start with the suspension of European investments and loan guarantees, and end with the threat of American-led international military action. This would include deployment of the robust, deep-earth penetrating nuclear weapon designed to collapse tunnels, which Congress urgently needs to be persuaded to fund fully. Only if the West works together can we present Iran with real sticks to go with all the carrots.