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Mulling Iran's Nuclear Future in Germany

Germans are worried about US President Bush's unwillingness to rule out military action against Iran. Experts say an attack is unlikely but the world should prepare for Iran as a future nuclear power.

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Do threats to invade Iran guarantee or threaten peace?

Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador in Iraq, voiced his concern about Iran's involvement in continuing unrest in the neighboring country.

"There are Iranian activities that undermine the current system," Khalilzad told ABC television in the US on Sunday. Such activities include weapons and certain people crossing the border into Iraq, he added.

A day earlier, US President George W. Bush had said he kept his options open as far as Iran was concerned.

"As I say, all options are on the table," Bush said. "The use of force is the last option for any president and you know, we've used force in the recent past to secure our country."

George Bush und Gerhard Schröder in Mainz

Will differences over Iran hurt recently improved US-German relations

Unlike in other countries, the statements have created quite a stir in Germany. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder said during an election campaign rally over the weekend that he did not approve of any military option regarding Iran. His conservative challenger, Angela Merkel, also rejected the idea of using military force against Iran. Merkel's previous support for Bush ahead of the war in Iraq might have helped her party to lose the last election in 2002.

"The question of military action is not on the table," she now told German weekly, Stern.

Old news?

But Bush and other members of his administration have mentioned possible military action against Iran before. The president simply reiterated a basic principle of US policy, said Jeffrey Gedmin, the director of the Aspen Institute in Berlin, a non-partisan organization for international affairs and transatlantic relations.

"Generally speaking, it's a good idea to keep all options open when engaged in difficult negotiations with dictatorships," he said, adding that Schröder had signaled the Iranians that "they can count on Germany."

Jackson Janes, the executive director of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University, said he believed Schröder's behavior would lead to "real friction" in US-German relations.

"I don't think Chancellor Schröder's comments were helpful because the powers in Tehran will have the impression that the West is not unified in the matter," Janes said in a recent DW-WORLD interview.

A dangerous poker game

Others said that the West had to make it clear to the rulers in Tehran that refusing to cooperate also bore risks, such as losing economic support.

"Foreign policy is a lot like poker: You play your cards close to your chest," said Ruprecht Polenz, an expert on Iran for Merkel's CDU party, adding that Schröder had weakened the west's position.

But Herfried Münkler, a military expert at Berlin's Humboldt University, said that war talk also had its drawbacks.

Unruhen in Najaf

Shiite Mehdi Army militiamen show destroyed US Army equipment in the holy city of Najaf, Iraq

"The problem is that when you make threats, you'll have to turn them into reality at some point," he said, adding that the US military was already stretched to its limit because of the war in Iraq and could not afford a second battlefield.

"The US could only became active on the basis of its immense technological superiority, meaning hits from the air or the sea," he said.

The Iraqi factor

Iran: Ahmadinedschad ist der iranische Präsident

Iran's new president, Mahmoud Achmadinejad, kisses the hand of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei watched by ex-president Mohammad Khatami on Aug. 3

There's a second dilemma that plays a role, said Udo Steinbach, director of the German Institute for Middle East Studies. Should Washington continue to threaten Iran or even attack it, Tehran could increase its influence in Iraq.

Citing US intelligence sources and secret Iranian documents, US magazine Time reported Sunday that Iran had financed insurgent groups and equipped them with new and dangerous bomb technology. Additionally, the Iranian regime has close relationships with a couple of Shiite groups in Iraq.

That's why Iraqi Shiites, who make up about two thirds of the population, might side with Iran, Steinbach said.

"A Shiite uprising or even just a Shiite refusal to go along with US policy would cause serious problems for Washington," he said.

A focus on democratization

The Aspen Institute's Gedmin said that's why it's unlikely that the US will actually attack Iran.

Irak Soldaten Anschläge Aufstand Falludscha Bagdad mit Galeriebild

A US supply truck burns after it came under attack on the Baghdad, Iraq, to Fallujah highway

"As much as Bush is right to keep his options open, as unlikely it is that there will be military action taken against Iran," he said. "The Bush administration has its plate full with Iraq as well as reforming the social welfare system and dealing with the president's waning popularity."

The last thing Bush needs right now is another challenge in the foreign policy arena.

Gedmin said that Europeans who didn't believe in taking military action against Iran and Americans, who believe that European negotiations with Iran will fail, were both in the right.

Iran Atomstreit Isfahan techniker mit Schutzanzügen und Atemmasken

Two technicians adjust their protective wear, alongside a box containig uranium ore concentrate, known as yellowcake, at the Uranium Conversion Facility of Iran, just outside the city of Isfahan

"We'll soon realize that Iran holds the better cards," he said, adding that people had to start thinking about how to deal with Iran as a nuclear power. The US and Europe should concentrate on supporting the country's democracy movement so that the weapons would end up in the hands of an "upright and accountable" government.

But US threats prevent this, Steinbach said.
"The consequences are fatal, because the threats could unify the regime and large parts of the Iranian population," he said.

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