The Magazine

Axis of Weakness

Europe appeases the mullahs.

Oct 18, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 06 • By JEFFREY GEDMIN
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IN EARLY SEPTEMBER at an annual meeting here of Germany's ambassadors, Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer told his top diplomats that the E.U. would "not accept" nuclear weapons in the hands of the mullahs. He had discussed the matter with the foreign ministers of France and Britain and "nothing would change" in this position. Fischer warned against a nuclear arms race in the Middle East (it would be a "nightmare," he said) and appealed three times to the Iranian leadership not to miscalculate.

That sounds serious. But then remember that high-noon rhetoric in Euroland means something different than it does in Texas. I once watched a dubbed western in Germany. In the original the sheriff says to the outlaw, "If yer not outta town by sundown, I'm gonna come gunnin' for you." In the German version the villain gets stern mutterings about the need to de-register at the Einwohneranmeldeamt--literally, the inhabitant registration office, the local authority where you fill out forms anytime you move from one place of residence to another. Now that'll make you shake in your boots.

In truth, Germany's Iran policy has been bankrupt from nearly day one. Bonn started the project in 1992 under the banner of "Critical Dialogue." While Germany and its European partners tried aid, trade, credits, and diplomatic indulgences, the regime in Tehran continued to support terrorism, repress the Iranian people, and clandestinely pursue nuclear weapons. In 1999 the E.U. changed the name of the policy to "Constructive Dialogue." A German friend of mine once explained to me, with some embarrassment, how the policy works. Europe is nice to the mullahs, and when this fails, well, Europe tries to be a little nicer.

It is not hard to imagine how hilarious all this must look from Tehran's perspective. While today Fischer talks tough, senior officials in Berlin are making no secret of the fact that they believe multilateral sanctions will never work and a military option to check Iran's nuclear ambitions is out of the question. Germany has been allergic even to the idea of stepped-up political pressure. There is some irony to all this, of course. On the one hand, Berlin has been campaigning hard for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. Germany loves the U.N. On the other hand, the Germans have also campaigned to keep the issue of Iran's nuclear program out of the Security Council.

A recent headline in a Berlin daily called for the West to offer Tehran "a fair price" to give up its nuclear ambition. A paper recently published by an important government-funded think tank in Berlin offers concrete proposals: "normalization of American-Iranian relations, U.S. abandonment of stigmatizing Iran as a 'rogue state' [and] the lifting of economic sanctions." It seems the Germans have run out of carrots and it's time for the Americans to do their part. The author argues for greater European support of "moderate forces," referring not to Iran, but rather to those in the United States who support more "engagement" with the mullahs.

Things are not much better in Britain. Prime Minister Tony Blair may have more serious inclinations, but he is using Iran to show his Europeanness and will be loath to break E.U. ranks again as he did over Iraq. His foreign minister, Jack Straw, is a dedicated advocate of the E.U. approach. Straw raced to Tehran shortly after 9/11 to appeal to common values in the struggle against terrorism. Even among Tories, there is consensus about the imperative of "engagement." Conservative politician Chris Patten says the failure of E.U. policy on Iran has been one of the biggest disappointments in his tenure as E.U. commissioner. Strangely, Patten also steadfastly rejects a harder line and insists that there is no alternative to détente.

For their part, the French, of course, still see Iran as part of the greater game: building the E.U. as a geostrategic counterweight to the United States. President Jacques Chirac and German chancellor Gerhard Schröder recently visited Madrid together. They must feel encouraged by developments there. The new Spanish defense minister, José Bono, says his country is no longer "kneeling" before Washington and that it is high time for Madrid to "show its sovereignty." What better chance than to use Iran as a test case for an independent E.U. foreign policy?