go to top

Berlin and Vienna Stand Against the West: European Divisions on the Iranian Bomb

Thursday, Oct. 11, 2007

Toward the end of August, French President Nicolas Sarkozy ushered in a new phase in the diplomatic negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program by calling for tougher sanctions against Iran. In the event that the U.N. Security Council should prove incapable of taking action, Sarkozy demanded that the Europeans take action themselves: unilaterally. It is only by applying massive economic pressure, Sarkozy argued, that "a catastrophic alternative" could still be avoided: "either the Iranian bomb or the bombing of Iran." At the same time, Sarkozy pressured the French energy companies Total and Gaz de France to forego any further investments in Iran and he called upon French banks to freeze their business with Iran.

The policy sketched out by Sarkozy is in fact the only non-military option available. If there is any world power that is in a position to force a change in Iranian policy without the use of military force, then it is the European Union. The United States is not in a position to do so, since the United States already has no trade relations with Iran. China, Japan and Russia are not in a position to do so, because Iran can live without their trade. Only Europe is indispensable for the Mullah regime. Forty percent of all Iranian imports come from the EU. Twenty-five percent of all Iranian exports flow to the EU. Whereas for Japan and China, Iran is principally an energy supplier, the investments and imports that keep the Iranian economy itself working come principally from Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Austria, and France. Germany was and remains Iran's number one trading partner. The former Director of the German-Iranian Chamber of Commerce in Tehran, Michael Tockuss, drew attention to Germany's importance for Iran when he noted, in an interview with the German magazine Focus, that "around two-thirds of Iranian industry is essentially equipped with plant and machinery of German manufacture. The Iranians are thoroughly dependent upon German replacement parts and suppliers."

"Thoroughly dependent": the potential efficacy of economic sanctions could hardly be made more obvious. A study undertaken in late 2006 by the Iranian parliament confirmed the obvious: without European replacement parts and products the Iranian economy would be paralyzed in a matter of months.

We are involved now in a race against time. Who will prove faster: the engineers building the centrifuges in Iran or the exponents of tougher sanctions in the EU? It depends, of course, upon the unity of the EU member states. Sarkozy's initiative would establish the same conditions for companies in all EU countries. How, then, have the others reacted to it?

In New York for the opening of the U.N. General Assembly last month, Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer made clear his response. Referring to the Nabucco pipeline project that would eventually carry Iranian natural gas to Europe, Gusenbauer affirmed (link in German): "We are going to do Nabucco in any case." Whereas Great Britain and the Netherlands are reported to support the French proposal, Germany and Austria -- as well as Italy (according to the Italian daily La Repubblica) -- have rejected it. French efforts to win over the German side have thus far been without success. According to a Sept. 13 report in the French daily Le Monde, Chancellor Angela Merkel is supposed in principle to support the Sarkozy proposal, but has explained Germany's hesitations by reference to her Social Democratic coalition partners.

But what alternative does Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany's Social Democratic Foreign Minister, have to offer?

The answer is clear. Whereas France, Great Britain, and the United States want to use tough sanctions in order to prevent Iran's enrichment of uranium to an industrial grade, Germany, Austria, and Russia are prepared now to accept Iran's nuclear facilities as long as they are placed under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). They have thus effectively shelved the strategy hitherto pursued by the U.N. Security Council, which aimed at stopping Iran from acquiring the potential bomb factories, not merely at monitoring them. At the end of June, the Iranian regime gladly took up this counter-proposal, as proffered to it by IAEA Director General Mohammad El Baradei: Iran agreed to negotiations with the IAEA on the modalities of proposed controls so long as the U.N. Security Council refrained from passing any new sanctions resolution. The real aims of the agreement can be made out already in the title of the relevant IAEA document 711 (dated Aug. 27): "Understandings of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the IAEA on the Modalities of Resolution of the Outstanding Issues." The spirit of complicity animating its European champions, moreover, was well-expressed by Caspar Einem, the foreign policy spokesperson of the Austrian Social Democratic Party, when he recently observed (link in German) that "it has to be taken into account that Iranian claims that they do not intend to build an atom bomb could be meant seriously."

Tehran can be highly satisfied with the deal. Every state can refuse IAEA monitors access to selected facilities and can even refuse them entry into the country altogether: the IAEA disposes of no military capacities and is entirely dependent upon the cooperation of the states placed under its supervision. The counter-proposal thus amounts to tacit recognition and acceptance of the Iranian nuclear option. Iran will not immediately have the bomb, but it will be permitted to possess the technology required for producing one. In effect, the position of Steinmeier and Gusenbauer represents a capitulation to the Iranian regime: a capitulation that for the purpose of saving face is covered up by the demand for provisional IAEA controls.

With the acquisition of the technologies required for producing a nuclear weapon, Iran will already have advanced far in realizing one of its principal aims. According to a public opinion poll, if Ahmadinejad obtains the technical prerequisites for the bomb, 27 percent of Israeli Jews will leave Israel.

The division of Europe on the Iran nuclear question came into the open on Sept. 21. On that day, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany discussed how the Security Council should proceed on the matter. After Iran had ignored the U.N.'s first two sanctions resolutions, a third, tougher regime of sanctions was on the agenda. For the first time, Germany openly broke from the transatlantic consensus. Whereas "the United States, Britain and France pushed for a third resolution and tougher sanctions," the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) wrote, Germany rejected the proposal, which aimed not at monitoring Iran's uranium enrichment program, but at getting it suspended. According to the FAZ report of Sept. 22, Germany did not want to complicate the negotiations between Iran and the IAEA, which are supposed to continue until the end of the year.

With the apparent agreement of the five veto powers to follow this approach, the Mullah regime has received yet another reprieve: perhaps the decisive one. But at least Sarkozy's proposals have had as consequence that the call for a sanctions regime with real teeth can no longer be ignored or trivialized as just an "American ploy." Sarkozy's initiative has exposed those firms and countries that despite everything want still to maintain good relations with Iran and it has at least partially isolated them.

By opposing the prompt passage of a new sanctions resolution, Germany has, in effect, departed from the Western block in order to make common cause with China and Russia against the core Western powers. It is remarkable that in taking this unprecedented step it is coming to the aid of a government that denies the Holocaust and wants to eliminate Israel. The question of whether a country or society has drawn the correct lessons from the history of National Socialism is not to be answered by pretty speeches, but only in practice. As concerns Germany's and Austria's Iran policy, the answer is clearly "no." Iran's progress in obtaining a nuclear capacity casts the shadow of a potential nuclear Holocaust over the Middle East. Berlin and Vienna are standing on the frontlines: not however with those who are attempting to avert the catastrophe, but rather with those who are, for whatever reasons, paving the way for it.

Matthias Küntzel is a Hamburg-based political scientist and the author of "Bonn and the Bomb: German Politics and the Nuclear Option." His latest book, "Jihad and Jew-Hatred: Islamism, Nazism and the Roots of 9/11," is available from Telos Press. The above article was translated from German by John Rosenthal.

Photo: German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier