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As EU members unify their stance, the US is lining up members of the international community to punish Iran for its nuclear program. With France as chief of the UN Security Council, a showdown could come soon.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has consistently defied the interntional community
Since 2004, the European Union has publicly claimed the united position that the row over Iran's nuclear program should be resolved diplomatically, but has reserved the right to back United Nations Security Council sanctions if Iran does not comply to international demands.
Yet, consistently since that time, individual nations have indicated a willingness to establish independent relationships with Iran, both political and economic, which seemingly ignore Brussels' position. Europe claims to be united, but a closer examination shows that this unity is an illusion.
For instance, Germany has developed deep business ties with Iran, with more than 50 German companies basing their offices there. Trade volume between the two has increased steadily over the last decade despite UN sanctions, with Germany having the largest share of Iran's export market.
Italy also has developed a strong relationship, both polticial and economic, with Iran. Last year Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini met with his Iranian counterpart Manouchehr Mottaki in Tehran to discuss a host of matters from the Italian, not EU, perspective. Italian companies also have frequently done business with Tehran, selling them goods and services that could have both military and civilian uses.
These relationships have helped Iran to sustain and continue its nuclear program. As of Tuesday, Tehran plans to enrich uranium at a higher level than previously, prompting the United States to renew its call for heavy sanctions against Iran.
Supporters of an Iranian opposition group demonstrate outside the EU Council to urge a tough line against the Tehran government's nuclear program
Last year, Tehran was cited by the International Atomic Energy Agency for defying UN Security Council prohibitions on uranium enrichment. The IAEA also said it was impossible to confirm whether the program is for peaceful or military purposes.
The EU's public front masks internal disagreement and double-speak. Charting a course for allies to have a united front will be difficult, let alone getting countries like China and Russia, reluctant to punish Iran, to back stronger sanctions. And as the international community dithers over what action to take, Israel is looking to Europe to take the lead. The prospect of unilateral Israeli action looms.
A test for the United States
US President Barack Obama has followed through on his promise to diplomatically engage Iran, taking a much different approach than predecessor George W. Bush. But no progress has been made, despite promising talks last fall in which Iran appeared to agree to a deal to move nuclear fuel out of the country. Yet the deal was abandoned by the Iranians at the last moment.
"Negotiators are bitter about the experience," Patrick Clawson, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Deutsche Welle.
This lack of faith, combined with Iran's insistence that it would not retreat from what it deems its right to develop a nuclear program, has led to a recent escalation in tone from Washington. At the end of January, White House officials indicated that they would
Western nations have put on a united front on Iran's nuclear program
increase missile defenses in the Middle East to protect Gulf state allies against Tehran. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has publicly pressed China for tougher sanctions.
The United States also has begun to pressure European allies to lessen business ties with Iran. It seems to have had an affect; last week, German manufacturer Siemens announced that it would cut future trade ties with Iran. Italian companies have yet to do the same, but Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi indicated last week that a nuclear Iran was not acceptable.
France holds the UN Security Council's presidency this month and is widely expected to bring a resolution calling for strict sanctions. Orde Kittrie, a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University of Advanced International Studies and expert on nuclear nonproliferation and sanctions, said any action must be strong, with much of the responsibility for their effectiveness falling on Europe.
"A broad-ranging European embargo would almost immediately bring the Iranian economy to its knees," he told Deutsche Welle. "The pressure could quickly succeed in coercing Iran's leadership to cease its nuclear weapons program, and would certainly constrain the pursuit of that program and send a strong deterrent message to other potential proliferators."
"The Iranian regime could not function without Iran's imports from Europe. It would cost Europe relatively little to halt those exports, and that short-term investment would save us all from the terrible prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran," he said.
Getting China and Russia on board
Even with the United States and its allies on the same page, Russia or China still need to support sanctions if they are to succeed. China has close energy relations with Tehran - energy which is needed to sustain China's economic growth - and is loath to do anything that risks them.
Russia, meanwhile, has been Iran's loudest defender. It has provided Tehran with a number of materials, from weapons to heavy machinery with dual-use nuclear purposes. Moscow has consistently watered down sanctions in the past, and has yet to indicate whether it would be willing to revist that stance.
Recognizing Russia's unwillingness, Washington has concentrated the majority of its lobbying effort on swaying Beijing to back sanctions. Beyond Clinton's recent comments, members of the House of Representatives have traveled to China in an attempt to convince lawmakers there about the dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran.
The United States did itself no favors by recently announcing a deal to sell weapons to Taiwan. But other factors in the Middle East might force China's hand and compel them to acquiese to sanctions supported by the United States and its European allies.
Israel, the X Factor
Israel has not made direct military threats against Iran - whose President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said that Israel "should be
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calling for the destruction of Israel in 2005
wiped off the map" - but has said that Iran will not be permitted to have a nuclear weapon.
Israel has used unilateral military force in similar situations in the past, taking out nuclear sites in Iraq and suspected nuclear sites in Syria. Iran presents a more unique challenge, as its nuclear sites are spread around the country and are difficult to target.
Still, Dan Hamilton, executive director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations in Washington, says the fallout from an Israeli strike - chaos in the Middle East, and likely beyond - might compel China to back sanctions that would starve Iran's nuclear program.
"The United States' message to China is that the Israelis think Iran is an existential threat to their existence," Hamilton told Deutsche Welle. Facing this threat, "all kinds of logic are off the table and one cannot predict behavior. If there is some kind of sudden surprise, it is hard to know what Israel would do."
The next step
Hamilton said he does not believe Iran will soften its position. With Europe coming together to form a cohesive policy, China facing growing pressure to support sanctions, and the insistence of the United States that action needs to be taken, sanctions are the most likely course of action.
"The Obama administration came into office saying the United States needs to talk to Iran, and they tried that. It didn't produce," Hamilton said. "The White House can now say we tried everything we could, Iran isn't responding, and [the international community] must be united."
Author: David Francis
Editor: Rob Mudge