As diplomatic efforts to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions near the UN, the European powers are working to ensure Tehran's compliance. To do that, say experts, they will need Russia, and the threat of military action.
President Vladimir Putin is much in demand
The bluster coming out of Tehran of late has put Western capitals on edge of late.
The EU 3 -- Great Britain, France and Germany -- appear ready to abandon further diplomatic efforts at halting Iran's uranium-enrichment plans in favor of possible sanctions through the UN Security Council. But sanctions are the last thing on the mind of some Security Council members, notably Russia.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has in the past wanted to protect Iran, an important trading and energy partner. But even Moscow seems frustrated at Tehran's increasing hard line, say experts, and will assume a key position in the crisis talks of the coming weeks.
Iran's affront to Europe
"If Russia puts itself clearly on the Western side of this equation, then Iran runs the danger of isolating itself," said Oliver Thränert, an Iran expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has stepped up the rhetoric, and doesn't seem concerned
Isolation hasn't seemed to bother Iran up until now. After meeting with EU negotiators at the beginning in October 2003, Tehran rejected outright a package of incentives presented by EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana in the fall of 2005 designed to stop the enrichment of uranium at Iranian nuclear facilities. Enriched uranium can be fuel for civilian nuclear reactors, but in a highly enriched form also the raw material for an atomic bomb.
On Jan. 10, Iran began uranium-enrichment activities at several nuclear facilities, the ultimate affront to European negotiators. The EU-3 soon joined Washington in calling for the matter to be taken up by the Security Council.
Missing a military threat
At an emergency meeting of the board of governors of the International Atomic and Energy Agency in Vienna on Feb. 2, the EU-3 and the US will be looking to convince Russia and council member China to come down harder on Tehran. The two holdouts on the five-member Security Council could veto any sanctions proposal.
"If Russia doesn't move, then it's 3-2 (votes in the UN Security Council), and that's a very comfortable situation for Iran," said Thränert.
The uranium enrichment complex in the Iranian town of Isfahan is cause for concern
A defeat of the sanctions proposal in the UN Security Council would only encourage Tehran, say experts, especially without a visible military threat from the West. Though Washington has repeatedly said it will take no option off of the table, Tehran seems emboldened by America's difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"They seem pretty confident that there won't be a military threat from the West," said Frank Umbach, an Iran expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations. "And that is the West's dilemma, something Mohammed ElBaradei has also mentioned in recent weeks."
Merkel lobbying Russia
Without the threat of military action or sanctions, the EU and Washington's main hope remains convincing Russia. And Moscow has given them reason for optimism in recent days. A Moscow proposal foresees Russia and Tehran jointly enriching uranium in Russia. The plan, which has interested Iran, could provide the West more oversight over Iranian nuclear activities.
Germany could play an important role in lobbying Putin's support. Of the EU-3, Germany still has the best ties to Moscow, said Thränert.
"We can also build a bridge to Russia," he said. "Merkel won't be able to do it herself, but our relationship to Moscow is still better than that of the French and British."