Transatlantic partnership strongeron Iran, but rifts could still emerge

BY WILLIAM ECHIKSON, JTA

BRUSSELS, Belgium — Following acrimony over policy toward Iraq, the next challenge for the United States and Europe is Iran.

This time, the transatlantic partners are working better, agreeing to seek a United Nations Security Council resolution demanding that Tehran stop its nuclear-fuel program. Both say the next step could be sanctions against the Islamic republic.

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So far, so good. But what happens if the Security Council can’t reach an agreement? Negotiations are continuing this week in New York on a British and French draft resolution that opens the possibility of stiff punishment of Iran.

On May 16, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is to meet with the foreign ministers of the four other permanent members of the Security Council — Britain, China, France and Russia — and Germany for discussions on Iran. But both China and Russia are hesitating to sign a tough resolution, raising the real possibility of a deadlock.

If that happens, European and American leaders meeting recently in Brussels at a German Marshall Fund conference on transatlantic relations underlined how the transatlantic harmony painstakingly reconstructed in the past few years could vanish.

The conference underlines how far the two sides have come — and how they could still diverge.

First, there’s good news. Conference participants spoke of how the United States and Europe are working together in Afghanistan, how they agree on freezing out the Palestinians’ Hamas-led government and how they’re united in standing up to what they called Russian energy “imperialism.”

When skeptics attempted to find holes in this harmony — such as detention of terrorist suspects in Guantanamo Bay or the dangers of global warming — U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried said: “The discussion of U.S.-European differences is so very 2003. We have done that. The U.S.-European relationship is at work and in action.”

“No more talking of the problems between us,” agreed Javier Solana, the E.U.’s high representative for foreign and security policy. “Transatlantic relations are in a good period. The patient is the rest of the world. Global problems would be in a better state if we cooperate.”

Both Europe and the United States believe Iran has been lying when it says its nuclear program is not for developing a weapon. Both find intolerable Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial and his threat to “wipe Israel off the map.”

The United States has allowed Europe to take the lead in trying to negotiate away the Iranian nuclear danger, and both support the International Atomic Energy Agency finding that Iran has enriched uranium and defied a Security Council order to halt all enrichment activities.

The problem is what to do in response to Iranian defiance.

“The Security Council should impose multilateral sanctions,” said U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., “including a prohibition on investment, a travel ban and asset freezes for government leaders and nuclear scientists.”

Europeans can accept such moves — but only if the United Nations imposes them. At the Marshall Fund conference, Solana insisted that the only coalition Europe would accept “is inside the Security Council.”

In contrast, the United States is willing to work outside the United Nations; Rice has talked about imposing sanctions with a “coalition of the willing.” The Europeans may not be willing.

Conflict across the Atlantic could become worse if the United States contemplates more dramatic action. When McCain refused to rule out military action — “the one thing worse than military action would be a nuclear-armed Iran,” he said — Solana became agitated and said force should not even be considered.

The lessons may be grim. Yes, the United States and Europe have moved beyond their bitterness over Iraq. They share the same values and goals, in the Middle East and beyond.

But expect divisions to emerge on Iran. No one wants nuclear-armed ayatollahs, but the explosive, unresolved question is how far to push. If diplomacy fails to budge Tehran, the danger will become real of a renewed transatlantic crisis, with Americans frustrated over European sniping and inaction and Europeans accusing the United States of imperialism and warmongering.

William Echikson is bureau chief for Dow Jones Newswires and a longtime correspondent in Europe. He is the author of three books, most recently “Noble Rot: A Bordeaux Wine Revolution.”

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