Axis of Talking Quite Moderately

Europe’s much-ballyhooed policy toward Iran appears not to be producing results.

Back to the drawing board?

This entry was posted in A Fistful Of Euros, Europe and the world and tagged by Doug Merrill. Bookmark the permalink.

About Doug Merrill

Freelance journalist based in Tbilisi, following stints in Atlanta, Budapest, Munich, Warsaw and Washington. Worked for a German think tank, discovered it was incompatible with repaying US student loans. Spent two years in financial markets. Bicycled from Vilnius to Tallinn. Climbed highest mountains in two Alpine countries (the easy ones, though). American center-left, with strong yellow dog tendencies. Arrived in the Caucasus two weeks before its latest war.

37 thoughts on “Axis of Talking Quite Moderately

  1. Soon there will be stern glaring and serious pronouncements that Iran is being very, very, very naughty.

    That should continue for a couple of years until Iran has successfully built some nukes unless the US unilaterally acts. Typical.

  2. Balleyhooed by whom? I’ve heard nothing but derision from the American press over Europe’s(and Russia’s) stance toward Iran.

    Supplication and apeasement doesn’t work. Iran wants a nuclear bomb. But what can Europe do about it, even with a UN security council vote? Militarily, not much.

  3. It’s nice to see that you level-headed moderate types are finally coming round to acknowledging what war-crazed troglodytes like myself have been saying for ages now.

  4. Why should Iran not get nuclear weapons? The USA has been intent on aggressing them, directly or indirectly since the falling of the Shah. And none of France, Germany, much less UK, will stand up against the USA if these attack Iran.

    DSW

  5. How successful has the American policy been?

    Softly, softly seems to have worked in the case of Libya (or is someone going to argue that Libya is a success of the Iraq invasion while Iran is a failure of European foreign policy?)

    To add to Antoni’s point, if Israel, Pakistan and possibly the former soviet republics and Saudi Arabia have nuclear weapons and it also has basket case countries like Afghanistan and Iraq as neighbours with known enemies camped in both and also a regional superpower in the form of Turkey next door the motivation is pretty clear. The difference in treatment between Iraq and North Korea should seal the deal.

    The obvious strategic interest does seem to mean that Iran is unlikely to give up a nuclear weapons programme on purely self interest grounds unless it is incetivised differently.

  6. At the same time the US asks countries all over the world not to acquire Atomic bomb technology Mr Bush Foolamour is pushing hard to develop “mini-bombs” technology.
    It is clear now, that after the end of the cold war, no one want to be exclusively under the umbrella of some US mad dog.
    Accepting protection means accepting economic dependence and others.
    As the general level of education rise and information is instantly available, people are less and less willing to allow their government to give up their sovereignty rights.
    As democracy is the least worst political organization, the UN is the equivalent for worldwide common decision.

  7. “no one want to be exclusively under the umbrella of some US mad dog.”

    As opposed to non-US, non-mad, non-dogs like Iran, China, North Korea and Russia, right? Methinks some people have lost all understanding of who their actual enemies are.

    I for one am unwilling to fall victim to some relativist pipe-dream by endorsing the notion that a regime like Iran’s has a “right” to nuclear weapons just because the US has them, nor do I care in the least if it fosters resentment in the hearts of a bunch of child-murdering theocrats if the US doesn’t let them get to play with cool nuclear toys. Iran simply cannot be allowed to get its hands on such weapons, not if Europeans truly disdain the thought of waking up to a rerun of the nuclear armagadden that hung over their heads from the 1950s through till 1990. One can dispute the war in Iraq, but nybody who thought Libya was brought round to disarming through a few kind words is, to put it mildly, living in a cartoon reality. I know that if I were a dictator itching to get my hands on nukes so I could one day threaten London, Washington and Paris with impunity, I sure as hell wouldn’t let a few namby-pamby words from indecisive EU nonentities get in my way, and you can bet your last eurocent that every Middle Eastern autocrat out would be 10 times as firm on getting his way.

    It’s time to wake up and realize that there are worse things in life than military action, and that sometimes the best defense really is an offense. Misplaced concern for “equality” shouldn’t mean that one equates truly disgusting and barbaric regimes like Iran’s with the United States, as if they were in any sense morally equivalent. That sort of nonsense may fly on Indymedia and Znet, but I thought I was among adults here.

  8. That sort of nonsense may fly on Indymedia and Znet, but I thought I was among adults here.

    This is Europe were talking about. It’s obvious to me, an American, that Europe has lost all sense of perspective.

    My stepfather is Polish. He claims that if a calamity befalls Europe, that it will wake up and act. I have my doubts.

  9. Abiola
    What I meant is that One has to lead the way by showing the example, not in flexing its nuclear muscle.
    Throwing away nuclear treaties unilaterally without opening the door for new negotiation rounds is more dangerous than a bunch of Iranian politician playing the nationalist cord.
    Man does not act logically. No educated man will give up its protection to a country whose leader characteristic is stubbornness.

    Any student in sociology knows that without dialogue there is always resistance to change.
    This is the case in micro societies like my family or in my company, everywhere.
    So far there is no dialogue. The ?real? goal was never debated in public. So don?t be surprised of backslash.

  10. For what it’s worth, anyone care to comment on Iran’s binding legal obligations under the Nonproliferation Treaty?

    Or other signatories’ obligations not to aid the Iranian efforts at proliferation? (Here, I’m thinking of Russia, where that’s been a problem for at least a decade. See the nearly two dozen references in Strobe Talbott’s The Russia Hand to “Iran, Russian nuclear program and”)

    As for the ballyhoo, it was mostly Over Here. Friend of mine does nonproliferation issues in the embassy in Berlin, and I happened to see her the day the European agreement went public. She was dead right about where we’d be a year from then.

  11. I don’t think that many people think that Iran having nuclear weapons is a good thing. It may possibly be expedient to deprive Iran of them by force.

    However by tolerating their proliferation to Pakistan and Israel and by treating North Korea so differently from Iraq we have lost much of the justice of our arguments. In Iran’s case it is because they are not our friends and that is not entirely their fault.

    It is probably true that Libya was enlightened in its own self interest but it is also true that it wasn’t bombed when it gave its weapons up, that it was involved in extended negotiations and that it received extensive assurances from, among others, European countries.

    There seems to be a delusion that Iran is some European problem that has been faced with lots of wooly handwringing that will require some can-do, trigger happy US policy to come and solve. In fact the situation in Iran is, more than anything else, the result of US policy and it has not been notably successful. The first gulf war may have been the best thing done for Iran but the second looks like a disaster that has coincided with a resurgence of the conservative forces that in theory it should have made irrelevant.

    In the end the ability of even the US military (= more than half the world’s military forces by cost) to prevent some 1940s technology falling into the hands of unpleasant people must be limited and the disparate treatments of North Korea and Pakistan versus Iraq make the incentives to do so enormous.

    By appearing partial in who it allows to have nuclear weapons and by making so little effort for example to tidy up in the former soviet union US policy has made things very difficult even for its own aims.

    If Iran has to be bombed it will be a failure and not a success.

  12. “Throwing away nuclear treaties unilaterally without opening the door for new negotiation rounds is more dangerous than a bunch of Iranian politician playing the nationalist cord.”

    Why?

    The nuclear treaties have done an abysmal job with North Korea and Iran didn’t do a damn thing to stop Pakistan or India, and ‘helped’ with South Africa only because they wanted to disarm. The treaties have been such horrific failures precisely because the international community other than the US has been completely unwilling to bother with enforcing them. Treaties don’t protect you, they merely formalize reasons to take action. Europe isn’t willing to take action, therefore the trust in treaties is deeply misplaced.

    Pretending that pointing out how useless the paper treaties are is just as dangerous as letting Iran get nuclear weapons show a complete lack of engagement with the real world.

  13. Like the US has bothered to enforce them?

    Pretending that giving Israel, Pakistan and South Africa got a free ride doesn’t have a price is dangerous. The reason why the Iranian case might be less dangerous than throwing away treaties is that throwing away the treaty applies to the other two hundred and something countries too. A law selectively applied is no law at all.

  14. That should continue for a couple of years until Iran has successfully built some nukes unless the US unilaterally acts. Typical.

    Given the precedent — you will recall, I am sure, how unilateral US action put a definitive end to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions — you might want to broaden your category of ‘typical’ countries a bit.

  15. Nobody I can see is pretending that Iran is strictly a European problem. In fact, if Iran is seen as strictly a US problem or European problem or Israeli problem or Russian problem, then the nonproliferation regime is a failure. (Yeah, yeah, Sebastian, we know.)

    The point is that a year ago, a joint European initiative was undertaken roughly a year ago. It undermined US efforts at that stage to increase pressure on Iran, and the European governments involved said their approach would deliver certain benefits.

    Where are the benefits? And what is to be done?

    I’m not claiming that increased pressure would have done the job. If Iran were an easy problem, it would have been solved long ago. It has to be addressed both at the supplying (esp. Russia, in the past) and demanding ends.

    It may not be possible to keep a determined 21st century government from acquiring cutting-edge 1940s technology. On the other hand, the impossibility of stopping pollution or robberies does not keep governments from making efforts at ending both, or of sanctioning them when they happen.

    Even in my more cynical moments, I can’t imagine that the European position is “We’ll keep talking because we believe that at the end of the day the Israelis or Americans will bail us out by blowing up the reactor.” That’s not a responsible position, certainly not for any government that aspires to any sort of global role (i.e., D, FR, GB, possibly ES or IT).

    It’s not clear what works, which is why the question is worth discussing. Some countries have decided to give up nuclear programs on their own. Others have been persuaded. Still others have changed their regimes and then abandoned programs. Some have pursued programs regardless of the cost. Many have lied about their nuclear capabilities, apsirations or histories. What will work in Iran?

    Also, one of Europe’s key claims about the international system is that negotiation, treaties and engagement produce better outcomes than the use of force. Iran is a test of that claim. What are the results?

    (By the by, “so little effort to tidy up the former Soviet Union” is not very accurate. See here and here for the bare bones, or search here and here for several thousand more. Evidence of similar EU commitment gladly appended.)

  16. “Given the precedent — you will recall, I am sure, how unilateral US action put a definitive end to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions — you might want to broaden your category of ‘typical’ countries a bit.”

    I presume you are noticing that the US did not take unilateral action as opposed to suggesting that the unilateral action of the US failed. You may remember that at the time we had President Clinton, who was far better known for avoiding unilateral action (typically) and who is known for being far closer to the European view of diplomacy than Bush. That approach led to a nuclear North Korea. North Korea has had nuclear weapons for the entirety of Bush’s presidency. Which I think you will admit makes things a bit harder. Clinton tried to work through the failed treaty approach. How you can try to use that as a counter to my suggestion that the anti-proliferation treaties are nearly useless, considering the lack of international will on the issue, is mysterious.

    Furthermore I’d love to entertain arguments that the US should act unilaterally. I don’t make them here because I thought the audience would be unreceptive. But if you want to argue that the US should act unilaterally against countries like Iran and North Korea, please so state.

    “Pretending that giving Israel, Pakistan and South Africa got a free ride doesn’t have a price is dangerous.”

    I don’t understand this sentence. First none of those countries were in the NPT. Second the US attempted to discourage the nuclearization of India and Pakistan. Third, what do you mean by ‘free ride’? Fourth, South Africa voluntarily relinquished its program under de Klerk as he was transitioning to non-racist government (which he knew would lead to black majority government). I’m not convinced those two items are unrelated.

    My argument is simple. The international community in general, and European governments in particular are willing to play around with treaties so they can appear to be dealing with issues, but when they don’t have the seriousness to follow through with action when it might be difficult or painful. See also France and Germany’s reaction to the economic stability pact once it was a problem for them. See also pretending that there isn’t genocide going on in the Sudan to avoid ramifications of the Genocide Pact. See also general uselessness of the NPT. See especially general loud pronouncements from European leaders about the superiority of ‘soft power’ and negotiation in dealing with Iran when it is now clear that Iran was playing the European negotiators for fools. Again.

  17. First things first: the USA has been the enemy of the Irani people since at least the deposition of Mossadegh. The fact of the actual theocratical government of Iran is in fact a reaction to the oppression that the USA fostered under the Shah. Without the USA intervention, Khomeiny would never get his revolution started.

    The Irani people, left to himself, would go to democracy in a western sense in a generation. What the USA is doing is in fact difficulting this transition. But they don’t care, they are intent on robbing the Irani people.

    DSW

  18. Playing Wack-A-Mole with nuclear weapons is not a convincing foreign policy strategy.

    Soft power was successful in Libya.

    The link only says that Iran has refused to agree to a permanent moratorium on its activities.

    US policy towards Iran has not been notably successful, nor has it been in concert with european initiatives. However good cop bad cop might be better than either on its own.

    The non-interventionism of European nations is exagerated by comparison with Bush. Up until Iraq Europe was mostly on-side. Europeans are there in Afghanistan and have only recently intervened on their own in Sierra Leone and Cote d’Ivoire.

    Treaties are there to attain cooperation deemed preferable to a free for all. If it is not working, it is not working for Iran as much as anyone else. Other countries not signing up have almost as much of a damaging effect on the contract as if the had actually reneged.

    This debate is full of false dichotomies. The choice isn’t between putting your head in the sand and blaiming Al-Qaeda on Iraq and Iran to win votes at home.

    The Nuclear Threat Reduction Budget is in total perhaps one twentieth the Iraq budget. There has been very little attempt to deal with civil nuclear power or personnel and there is a huge amount of material missing.

    Finally many of the points about US foreign policy are best seen as tears over spilled milk but it wouldn’t hurt to recognise that military intervention is an expensive sign of policy failure and not just a sign of failure to intervene militarily earlier. If anything the lesson of Iraq is that american military power has limits. To mount an operation in Iran like that in Iraq would, by my back of an envelope calculations be at least five times as costly. Would China underwrite that? Winston Churchill preferred jaw jaw to war war and he wasn’t afraid of a fight.

  19. “Treaties are there to attain cooperation deemed preferable to a free for all.”

    That is the proper goal of effective treaties. That has very little to do with this discussion. The actuality is closer to “Treaties are there to attain the illusion of cooperation on a problem. When actual work needs to be done, the illusion is revealed.”

    I would prefer a treaty system with partners that intended to do things compared to unilateral US action. But my actual choice is between unilateral action or a multilateral facade of action ending in inaction. The arguments presented in favor of treaties here are arguments for the former. But the European governmental actions have proven to be in the latter catagorization on many important issues–including nuclear proliferation.

  20. I’m not sure who is complaining about treating treaties as bits of paper. I’m suggesting that if the US, a significant player in this as in many other things can’t be bothered to try to make them work and rips up related treaties willy nilly then it shouldn’t be surprised that treaties don’t work. That is one price of unilateral action.

    I still don’t see why this is all Europe’s fault. What was the US doing all this time? Most European countries are not even nuclear powers.

    All this would be more convincing witha clearer picture of what unilateral action is being talked about. Since we had to invade Iraq to get rid of its WMDs, presumably we have to do the same with Iran. Only Iran has three times the population, is not bust and might have different morale situation. It also has an air force. I reckon that would cost a trillion dollars to do at least. I’m not sure that the “at least we haven’t killed quite as many people as Saddam would have” calculations would give the same room for manouver and I’m not sure that the figleaf and reinterpreted out of all recognition Security council resolution would be forthcoming either.

    Anyway, what went right in Libya?

  21. “I’m not sure who is complaining about treating treaties as bits of paper. I’m suggesting that if the US, a significant player in this as in many other things can’t be bothered to try to make them work and rips up related treaties willy nilly then it shouldn’t be surprised that treaties don’t work. That is one price of unilateral action.”

    Vicious Cycle–Treaties don’t do anything so the US has to take unilateral action. Unilateral action seen as undermining treaties.

    Repeat.

    Possibilities to break cycle:

    1) US doesn’t take unilateral action and treaty is unenforced. Result treaty not undermined by unilateral action; treaty is instead undermined by non-enforcement.

    2) International partners (in this case Europe) decide to enforce treaty. This makes unilateral action unnecessary. Treaty is upheld. Treaties as a concept strenghtened. Likelihood of unilateral action decreases as treaty become useful.

    Those options plus US unilateral action represent the 3 choices available. You seem to be currently advocating 1). Is that helpful?

    Same applies to stopping genocide in the Sudan.

  22. Same applies to stopping genocide in the Sudan.

    The US has already taken unilateral action. It has sanctioned Sudan. Not that that helps.

    Besides one of the reasons it went wrong in Darfur is the US mistake of neglecting the Darfur interests in negotiating a powersharing arrangement between the (partly christian) south and Khartoum. That was done by the same Danforth that is now the US ambassador to the UN.

    And the current position of the US on Darfur is that the US opposes military intervention, other than through the AU organized operations. And the US adamantly refuses to commit troops itself.

    It does call the situation genocide, but refuses to take any additional action based on that declaration.

    It is not the US government that is hypocritical, but your reference to Darfur is.

  23. For those with a subscription or physical copy, the FT has an excellent piece by Philip Stephens on exactly this issue.

  24. Huh, all those troops from European countries tied down in Iraq–I can totally see why they can’t get involved in the Sudan.

    And with all that European support the US gets in Iraq, it is clearly quite selfish of the US not to commit additional troops to stop a genocide in the Sudan. Oh, and considering how quickly the UN has embraced sanctions, and considering how quickly European countries have been willing to use the term genocide to describe the slaughtering of an ethnic population in the Sudan, it is quite clear that the US would get all sorts of useful military and financial support from Europe if it were to go.

    Don’t talk to me about American hypocrisy.

    The fact is that for all the European talk about sophisitcation and morality, European leaders do not have the will to enforce treaties or act against atrocities. They try to hide that lack of will by papering over objections and passing new treaties. They pretend that a new treaty will make up for the failure to enforce the old ones. We don’t need new nuclear treaties. We need a Europe that cares about the old ones. We don’t need a new protocol against genocide. We need a Europe that cares about stopping genocide. And I don’t mean ‘care’ in a whiney “Oh isn’t it awful that bad things happen in the world” kind of way. I mean ‘care’ in the “we should stop this evil act” kind of way.

    And since we aren’t likely to have that any time soon, it would be nice if we could get a Europe that could at least support the US when we have to get our hands dirty. Or at the very least, not obstruct us.

  25. I don’t always understand ‘nuanced’ arguments.

    You wouldn’t.

    The US is against outside military intervention in Darfur (outside the AU that is). You might like a bit of war, but the rest of the world doesn’t. So the EU is in agreement with the US on Darfur. Which according to you is bad, very bad, because those treaties need to be enforced. Try convincing Powell and the rest of the US government first, before your screeching about ‘Europe’.

  26. Powell has named the atrocity in Sudan ‘genocide’ and the US has proposed sanctions. They were blocked last time by China, the time before that by France.

    The EU investigators refused to call it genocide, and to my knowledge every European government has gone along with that.

    My favorite line from you is: “Which according to you is bad, very bad, because those treaties need to be enforced.”

    And according to you nuclear treaties and anti-genocide treaties do not need to be enforced? Why do we bother with them?

  27. I see the light. Thank you Sebastian.

    Clinton didn?t use unilateral action against North Korea, that gives action=war, right?

    And Europe must use action to help uphold treaties.

    And the US breaks treaties so Europe must wage war against the US. It?s all so clear now.

    But international law prohibits war of aggression (I think some nazis got executed for it after some trial in some german city starting with N). So I?m still a bit confused: Must Europe wait until the US attacks Europe before Europe?s declaration of war?

  28. So, summarising:Iran obtaining nuclear weapons raises the probability of the use of such weapons and military action might offset this (then again, there is also the possibility military action might trigger the very event it is seeking to avoid)the use of military action has a high probability (virtual certainty) of high cost in terms of human life, the global economy, global stability, …the use of nuclear weapons has an even higher cost in the same terms

    The biggest problems are the unknown probabilities and unknown costs. The European position makes sense if the probability of the use of nuclear weapons is extremely small and the consequence, when wrong, is limited. The American position is sensible if nuclear use is highly likely or being wrong is catastrophic. (Disregarding arguments about ensuring any nuclear conflagration is on “their patch” and not on “ours”.)

    The “lily-livered European” and “gung-ho American” labels are not particularly appropriate here because of the uncertainties. This is different to the case of Iraq where estimations of probability figures and costs were deliberately fudged for other (fill in your pet theory here) reasons. A report on a recently released British Cabinet Office assessment written before the war, but not made available publicly, makes this clear:

    [Regarding the decision to invade, the US Administration] did not see the war on terrorism as being a major element in American decision-making.
    […]
    There were “real problems” over the alleged threat and what the US was looking to achieve by toppling Saddam, [the Foreign Office policy director] said. Nothing had changed to make Iraqi WMD more of a threat.

    “Even the best survey of Iraq’s WMD programmes will not show much advance in recent years. Military operations need clear and compelling military objectives. For Iraq, ‘regime change’ does not stack up. It sounds like a grudge match between Bush and Saddam.”

    Nobody has a crystal ball, and I believe that most people can be trusted to think about and debate issues such as Iran sensibly, but only if they are given cost and probability assessments that are not massaged.

  29. “The European position makes sense if the probability of the use of nuclear weapons is extremely small and the consequence, when wrong, is limited. The American position is sensible if nuclear use is highly likely or being wrong is catastrophic.”

    Which of the more probable consequence of Iranian nuclear use is not likely to be castastrophic?

  30. If there is a country that longs for nuclear weapons use, it is the USA.

    No USA claim about democracy and human rights is sincere. That doesn’t mean that no USA citizen care about these issues, but such individuals do not set the agenda.

    DSW

  31. Which of the more probable consequence of Iranian nuclear use is not likely to be castastrophic?

    The threat of an Iranian nuclear arsenal to neutralise Israel’s own nuclear deterrent giving rise to an attack on Israel using conventional weapons. This, to me, would seem the most probable of a series of highly unlikely negative outcomes.

    Around the same level of probability (perhaps higher) must be danger of effectively losing a nuclear device to extremists who go on to use it in a terror attack. This would be catastrophic. However the same possibility currently exists in all nuclear countries with religeously- or politically-dogmatic leadership. That is, almost all the club. Iran doesn’t affect the equasion much.

    Perhaps, this points to the beginning of a possible way of breaking the impasse. A middle-eastern, nuclear free NATO (METO?), including the US, providing mutually agreed defence. As jack pointed out above the US (4% of the world’s population) has more military fire-power than the rest of the world put together, this way it can do its job and increase US security.

    Why should Israel give up its own arsenal? Because, nuclear weapons are only a deterrent while Israel’s “enemies” can’t match them, and also Palestinian problems might fizzle out in such an environment. Why should the US abandon it’s favouratism towards Israel? Because, it would be in the US’s and Israel’s interest. Why should countries like Iran trust the “infidel”? Because, if METO became the only game in town they couldn’t really refuse. The hard bit is making it the only game in town, and maybe oil, or rather the dollars paying for it, may point the way.

    Wishy-washy, European thinking? Probably. But, the divisions within Europe must have seemed just as intractable when NATO was formed.

  32. Michael D,

    I disagree. Iran isn’t like the rest of the club. It has a very unusual decentralized organization of the state, with different power centers often pursuing contradictory policies. Iran’s nuclear program wouldn’t be such a concern if it were controlled by the reformers or even “conservative convervatives”. But it’s not. It’s in the hands of the Revolutionary Guards. They don’t have enough leverage to start wars, but at least some of the factions may be comfortable secretly helping al Qaeda.

  33. … at least some of the factions may be comfortable secretly helping al Qaeda.

    I agree with what you say. However, does Iran’s possession of nuclear bombs imply that any nuclear terror outrage is significantly more likely?
    OBL already claims to have nuclear weapons he obtained from the Russian stockpile via the ‘stans’. Yes, I am dubious too, but OBL has been underestimated before…replace ‘al Qaeda’ with ‘extremists prepared to use WMD’ and I think of anthrax letters and Oklahoma City. Domestic terrorists may be as much a threat as the international varietyreplace ‘al Qaeda’ with ‘extremists willing to resort to violence’ and I can’t think of any club members immune. Of course, a nuclear accident occuring during a stunt by, for example, Britain’s animal rights protesters, is deliberately far fetched; but whenever people consider themselves “right” in absolute terms and others in authority sympathise with the objectives, bad things happenwe also have the possibility of “rogue” official or semi-official organizations. E.g. intelligence organizations often score own-goals (French intelligence stories about Yellowcake?) All it takes is one slip-up…

    Please, understand. I’m not trying to diminish the dangers of Iranian possession of nuclear weaponry at all. It scares me as much as anybody. However, I do think that when we talk glibly about ‘military intervention’ and the lessons we should have learned about the unforeseen consequences of such, it is prudent to keep the dangers we are trying to address in perspective.

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