Sunday, May 21, 2006

Germany, the US and negotiating with Iran

"God may smile on us, but I don't think so." - anonymous Pentagon adviser quoted by Seymour Hersh April 2006 on Bush administration plans to pressure Iran militarily

Gareth Porter explains in Reversing Policy, U.S. "Froze" Iran Talks in March Inter Press Service 05/20/06 that the Bush administration nixed direct talks with Iran that US Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad, a neoconservative who seems to have more ability to grasp reality than many of the others, had initially won administration approval to hold.  The talks with Iran would have been aimed at securing their cooperation in stabilizing the situation in Iraq, with the secondary possibility that it might lead to wider negotiations.

But the usual suspects, Deadeye Dick Cheney and Rummy, quashed the initiative:

The Post columnist [David Ignatius] attributes the March decision to scuttle the talks with Iran to Rice's desire for close coordination of Iran strategy with the three European countries - Britain, France and Germany - which had been conducting direct negotiations with Iran. But the decision had much less to do with multilateral diplomacy on Iran than with the determination of Vice Pres. Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld to avoid anything that legitimised the Islamic Republic of Iran.

That determination apparently overrode the preference of both Khalilzad and Rice. Rice's initial comment, just before leaving for Sydney, Australia on Mar. 16, was that talks with Iran on Iraq "could be useful".

By the time she had arrived in Sydney, however, White House National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley and an unnamed "senior U.S. official" had denigrated the idea of such talks. Rice had apparently been informed that such talks were unacceptable to powerful figures in the administration. "We will see when and if those talks [with Iran] take place," she said in Sydney.  (my emphasis)

But what I found even more interesting in Porter's article is his decription of the position that  Germany under Angela Merkel's Grand Coalition government is taking.  Porter writes:

The bilateral U.S.-Iranian talks on Iraq were certainly not cut off to coordinate multilateral diplomacy on the Iranian nuclear issue more closely. All those involved in the negotiations except the United States had agreed by March that Washington needed to have direct negotiations with Tehran to achieve a settlement of the conflict over Iran's nuclear programme. ...

The Europeans - particularly France and Germany - have long been dismayed at Washington's refusal to enter into diplomatic dialogue with Iran on the nuclear issue. They viewed the expected talks with Iran about stabilising Iraq as an opportunity open up a channel for U.S.-Iran negotiations on nuclear issues.

The most aggressive of the European three in pressing this point has been Germany, whose Chancellor Angela Merkel the Bush administration had expected to follow Washington's lead on Iran. Instead, the Merkel government has now become the most aggressive of the European three in telling the United States that it must agree to direct U.S. participation in negotiations with Iran.

During a visit to Washington Apr. 3-4, German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told reporters he had advised Rice and Hadley that the talks he understood were to occur between the United States and Iran should not be limited to Iraq but should include the nuclear issue as well, according a report by AFP and the German television network Deutsche Welle.  (my emphasis)

Even the Blair government in Britain professes to be dismayed by the Bush administration's unwillingness to hold direct talks with Iran.  And they have said they wouldn't participate in a military action against Iran.  But Blair has been so amazingly subservient to the Bush administration on Iraq, it wouldn't be surprising if he again breaks with France and Germany and supports unilateral US military action against Iran.

I see no indication that Germany is anything other than serious about trying to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.  Both the Grand Coalition government and the previous red-green coalition were focused on trying to find ways to prevent that from happening.

George Perkovich wrote in Getting Ready for a Nuclear-Ready Iran (Nov. 2005):

France has demonstrated real determination to block Iran’s proliferation, and as long as the United States does not move precipitously and unilaterally to use force, France appears likely to join with a tough U.S. approach. Thus, if the United States and France stay aligned on preventive strategy and tactics, and Iran nonetheless defies them, France would be inclined to work with Washington on punitive measures short of force. German Foreign Minister Fischer [of the red-green coalition], according to knowledgeable sources, evinces strong determination to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.  (p. 194; my emphasis)

The Bush administration's determined refusal to hold formal negotiations with Iran, and its military threats at this stage, have no doubt made it more difficult for Germany and France to support the US in the negotiations with Iran.   If Bush and Cheney were serious about wanting a peaceful solution to the prospect of Iran developing nuclear weapons several years from now - and it does not appear that they are - they would need to rely on the EU countries to bring economic pressures to bear and offer incentives.  Perkovich also writes:

Iranians desire ties with Europe for identity and political reasons and for economic interests. The EU has conditioned its willingness to open relations with Iran on Tehran’s compliance with nonproliferation rules, human rights, and disavowal of terrorism. A special trade relationship is the key incentive the EU offers conditionally. (p. 194)

Iran’s key oil customers include Japan, China, South Korea, Taiwan, France, Germany, and Italy. These countries are among the world’s top petroleum net importers, and together they receive about 1.2 million bbl/d out of the 2.6 million that Iran exports daily. Although Germany and France have shown a decrease in demand for Iranian oil in the last decade, Japan, China, and South Korea have increased it, and even Italy still imports about 8.8 percent of its oil from Iran. Therefore, establishing sanctions on Iranian oil would entail convincing these countries to stop oil trade with Iran, or at least to significantly decrease it. Their compliance would, in turn, require that they be provided with a reliable alternative source of oil supply.  (p. 184; my emphasis)

In short, sanctioning Iranian oil exports would require many major states to put nuclear counter-proliferation ahead of economic well-being, at least in the near term. In democracies, elected leaders would calculate whether their publics would care more about the security implications of Iranian nuclear weapons than rises in their cost of living. These calculations would in turn be affected by national threat perceptions and by the process by which sanctions would be authorized. Would a nuclear Iran be seen as a threat primarily to Israel and U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf? Would key European Union states feel more threatened by Iranian nuclear weapons or by inflation? Major Asian importers of Iranian oil probably would not feel directly threatened by Iranian nuclear weapons and therefore less inclined to cooperate with sanctions. This reluctance would be greater still, if sanctions were seen as primarily a U.S. “project” (pp. 185-6)

In other words, for all the cowboy rhetoric from the neoconservatives and our Republican war zealots, the United States could really use the cooperation of its major allies in Europe and elsewhere.  So is it really in our interests for the Bush administration to continue its unilateralist policies in relation to Iran, as it has in Iraq?

The cooperation of France, Germany, Italy and Britain would also be important in applying economic sanctions on goods and services other than oil, such as machine tools.  And, noting that the US and the EU countries cooperated for seven years up until 2000 in blocking World Bank loans to Iran, Perkovich writes:

Consensus broke, however, when European partners adopted an engagement strategy with Iran. Since then, the World Bank has awarded four loans for development projects in Iran: $145 million for the Tehran Sewerage Project, $87 million for the Primary Health Care and Nutrition Project, $20 million for the Environmental Management Support Project, and $180 million for the Earthquake Emergency Recovery Project.  In addition, $150 million will be directed to establishing a local development fund, $80 million for a low-income housing project, $120 million for a water supply and sanitation project and $295 million for a “deurbanization” project.   As major contributors to international financial institutions and trade partners with Iran, European countries have, once again, a pressure point to force Iran to comply with its obligations under the NPT [Non-Proliferation Treaty].  (p. 189; my emphasis)

The overwhelming military power of the US today in our "unipolar" world led the neoconservatives to believe the US could act unilaterally in the world with a militarized foreign policy and disdain the cooperation of other countries, including those "wimpy" Europeans.

But in this case, the US and the EU not only have a common real interest in preventing Iran's nuclear armament.  They also perceive that they have a common interest in doing so.  And yet the Bush administration seems determined to blow off all the active cooperation that has been achieved in favor of a unilateral military attack on Iran.

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