The Magazine

Europe's Iran Fantasy

From the September 6, 2004 issue: Europeans are from Venus, Mullahs are from Mars.

Sep 6, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 48 • By LEON DE WINTER
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ON OCTOBER 22, 2003, the Guardian, a leading British newspaper, carried no fewer than three articles about the remarkable events in Tehran the day before. The foreign ministers of the three leading European Union countries--Britain's Jack Straw, France's Dominique de Villepin, and Germany's Joschka Fischer--had flown to Iran to try to persuade its Shiite leaders to conclude an agreement about Iran's nuclear program.

The first was a news story, under the headline, "E.U. ministers strike Iran deal." The lead began, "Three European foreign ministers claimed a diplomatic coup yesterday, securing an agreement from Iran over its nuclear program which could defuse a brewing crisis with the U.S." Central to the agreement was a commitment "to suspend [Iran's] uranium-enrichment and reprocessing activities"--in other words, to halt production of materials for nuclear weapons.

The second article was by Guardian commentator Ian Black, who wrote: "The agreement marks a significant victory for the European Union's policy of 'conditional engagement' and the use of carrots and sticks, in contrast to threats from the United States against the Islamic republic, part of President George Bush's 'axis of evil.' . . . 'We often find ourselves on the defensive, being told we are appeasers for engaging with regimes like this,' an E.U. diplomat said last night. 'This agreement gives the lie to that argument. Clearly the Iranians did not do this because they feared E.U. military action. They did it because they want a relationship with us and want to keep channels open.'"

The Guardian's third piece about this triumph of European diplomacy opened as follows: "Iran's agreement to allow unlimited U.N. inspections of its nuclear facilities and to suspend its uranium enrichment program marks a tremendous success for European diplomacy. . . . Mr. Straw played down the significance of the achievement. He should not be so modest. . . . Iran will doubtless remain an axis-of-evil rogue state in George Bush's florid lexicon. But Washington must not try to undermine this accord. To date, [Washington's] polarizing, aggressive pressure tactics have mostly made a difficult problem worse. Europe demonstrated yesterday that there is a different, more effective way. And it is not the American way."

These articles were typical of those then appearing in the European press about the success of European soft power. Few commentators could resist the opportunity to malign Bush, even though many realized that Iran had no intention of adhering to the agreement. The warnings and reports by the International Atomic Energy Association, then and since, make it clear: Everything that happened on that fall day in Tehran was fiction and deception. Yet Europe's leading politicians chose to deceive and debase themselves rather than recognize Iran's play-acting for what it was. For them, the illusion of soft power was infinitely preferable to the suggestion that they should be prepared to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power at all costs. The Iranians knew perfectly well that the Europeans would not back up their demands with force--the only language tyrants building nuclear arsenals understand. The mullahs are quite familiar with Europe: The life-loving Europeans of the third millennium would never have sent their children into the minefields of Iraq.

All but a handful of Europe's politicians, obsessed by the specter of electoral defeat, refuse to take a stand if doing so could force them to sacrifice lives. Post-historical and post-religious Europe, born in the shadow of the Holocaust, does not see sacrifice as legitimate. Of course, considering that Europe has nurtured some of the world's cruelest ideologies, the dread of scenarios that might require sacrifice is hardly surprising. The problem is that much of the world, especially the Arab Islamic parts of it, is simply not interested in the moral and ethical implications of Europe's bloody past.

Since Auschwitz--the benchmark of ideological and political developments in Europe--the miracle of European prosperity and freedom has not led to the conviction that this prosperity and freedom must be defended, if necessary by force; on the contrary, the miracle has given birth to an attitude of cultural relativism and pacifism. It is as if modern Europe had divested itself of its idealistic and historical context, as if many Europeans saw the miracle of a prosperous and free Europe as an ahistorical, natural, and permanent state of affairs--as if Auschwitz had been wiped from their memory.