Pictured above is the launch of an Iranian Shahab long-range missile. The fear that nuclear-tipped Shahab missiles might strike Europe in part has kept the option of US military action on the table regarding Iran’s nuclear program.
According to a May 2, 2014 Reuters article by Krista Hughes entitled “Merkel: Give Iran Talks a Chance, But Ready to Act if Needed,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that sanctions could still be reinstated against Iran if needed, but negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program have to be given a chance. Merkel reinforced that statement by saying, “If Iran does not meet its obligations, or does not meet them adequately, we remain ready to take back the current limited suspension of sanctions.” She then went on to state Iran must comply with an interim deal under which Tehran agreed to limit parts of its nuclear work in return for the easing of some sanctions.
The Geneva nuclear negotiations have been moving very slowly, but progress has been made. That is why Merkel and other Western leaders have publicly asked for patience with the process. Insisting that the negotiations be rushed will result in the process becoming a forced public performance, perfunctory in nature, with no real chance for success. What is sought by the West is a transformation in the thinking of Iran’s leadership. Interestingly enough, the new dialogue between Iran and the P5+1 (the Permanent Five Member States of the UN Security Council—US, Britain, France, Russia, and China—plus Germany) has built confidence, eliminated many ambiguities about positions, and lessened the guessing over actions, intentions, and motives. Even more, there have been hints that Iranian leaders may be able to see the real possibilities of a final agreement. Iran’s adherence to the interim deal has been a good first step and could mean Iranian leaders sense the promise of a peace agreement. A negotiated agreement on Iran’s nuclear program would be a treasure of great value reached as a result of the hard work of diplomats and officials of all parties involved. Yet, the bitter scenario of Iran backing out of the process after all that has been achieved remains a real prospect. All parties went into negotiations knowing that reaching a final deal was far from a fait accompli.
Merkel was expressing strong language regarding the potential response of leveling harsh sanctions against Iran if the Geneva process failed. Yet, her response hardly matches the February 26, 2014 statement made by US Secretary of State John Kerry that “the US has an obligation to pursue nuclear negotiations with Iran before attempting to force Tehran to give up its nuclear activities with military action.” His statement left no doubt that the US would seriously consider a strike on Iran if diplomatic talks were to breakdown. There is a considerable divergence in thinking between Merkel and Kerry when they indicate they are ready to take action. Sanctions may indeed have the potential to be very harmful and could possibly turn Iran into an “economic basket case.” However, military action would be calibrated to destroy Iran’s nuclear program to the greatest extent possible. The apparent reluctance of Germany to support US military action sends a message to some in Iran that there is a schism between the US and Europe on the Iran’s nuclear program, and the US would need to go it alone against its nuclear program. Clearly, Germany, much as other European states, does not appear fully committed to its own defense against the potential threat Iran can pose to Europe. If European leaders do not feel the collapse of the talks would warrant a military strikes against Iran, let it be. However, if military response is desired, European leaders should standby the US, and avoid contradicting its policy in public statements. They should explore ways to effectively support, encourage, and affirm US action.
European Security and Iran
A little over a decade ago, there was a consistent view among leaders of Germany, France, and Britain, regarding their Iran nuclear dossiers which was, “Iran wants a nuclear weapon and only a strong, consistent approach will stop it.” European states were frightened then by reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) stating Iran was trying then to create a Plutonium capacity, had built a heavy water facility, and was engaged in laboratory research for Uranium-238, and had worked with Uranium-239, which could detonate spontaneously. Iran also had done research on Polonium 2010, a high neutron source which can eject neutrons, and is an element for nuclear devices. While some European countries used Polonium 2010 in laboratories as part of their fundamental research, Iran at the time had no fundamental research. Iran was also engaged in detonics research, especially catastrophic blasts. Moreover, Iran had a rapidly growing ballistic missile research program, and had the capability with its Shahab-3 missiles to place 1 ton 1500km to reach inside Turkey and Israel. It was developing the capability to reach Greece, and its Shahab-5 missile eventually would be able to reach Russia and Western Europe. For the Europeans, the primary way to cope with the Iranian threat was through negotiations. Germany, France, and Britain, as Members of the European Union, were dubbed the “EU-3” in their talks with Iran. It is somewhat unclear even at that time whether European leaders were ever fully behind military action. However, the negotiations between Iran and the EU-3 had begun during the administration of US President George W. Bush, who seriously threatened military action against Iran. He dubbed Iran as part of an “Axis of Evil,” and indicated the US would attack Iran to protect the Europeans and other friends from nuclear armed Iranian missiles.
Based on Merkel’s latest comments, it seems the Europeans are willing to step away from a truly tough approach to Iran. The comments are reflective of European attitude of wanting security but not wanting to invest in it. Interestingly, according to US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, European friends and allies within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have failed to meet their defense spending pledges. Hagel noted that US outlays on security are three times that of the other 27 partners combined, even though the US gross domestic product (GDP) is smaller than their total GDP, a longstanding US concern about NATO defense spending. Hagel is correct when he explains that “This lopsided burden threatens NATO’s integrity, cohesion and capability—and ultimately, both European and transatlantic security.” Only four of the NATO partners met their agreed target of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense in 2013—Estonia, Greece, Britain and the US. France and Turkey fell just shy of the 2 percent goal. The failure of European leaders to invest money and capabilities into their armed forces has left them unable to influence outcomes on issues such as Ukraine and Syria, and militarily irrelevant regarding Iran. If the Europeans are reluctant to meet their 2 percent commitments for defense under the NATO, there is little chance they would boost their military capabilities to respond to the possible challenge of Iran.
European Criticism of the US
In addition to what could be seen as lethargy among the Europeans regarding defense, there is a sense among them that in its foreign policy, the Obama administration seeks politically expedient solutions rather than well-considered approaches based on analyses. The French seem convinced that the US was becoming disinterested in the Middle East. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius expressed his dismay with the US in a November 2013 speech, stating: “The United States seems no longer to wish to become absorbed by crises that do not align with its new vision of its national interest.” For him, that explained “the non-response by strikes to the use of chemical weapons by the Damascus regime, whatever the red lines set a year earlier.” Fabius stated further that a redirection of US interests may be a manifestation of the “heavy trauma of the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan” and what he perceived as the current “rather isolationist tendency” in US public opinion. Fabius lamented that without US engagement, the world would find “major crises left to themselves,” and “a strategic void could be created in the Middle East,” with widespread perception of “Western indecision” in a world less multipolar than “zero-polar.” In other Western capitals, there is a view that US foreign policy is driven by Obama’s desire to establish his legacy. The perception that Obama is taking a “legacy quest” approach has more than perturbed Russian President Vladimir Putin. In many capitals around the world, this signaled the US may be willing to make risky concessions in talks to reach agreements. All of these criticisms coalesce to create the impression in some parts of the world, even Europe, that the US government under Obama’s leadership is weak and willing to compromise when previous US administrations would not.
The sense of uncertainty about US intentions and capabilities led the British Parliament to vote down Prime Minister David Cameron’s request that British force join the US in military action against the Syrian government for its use of chemical weapons. What created real upheaval among European leaders were revelations by US National Security Agency whistleblower, Edward Snowden, that the US engaged in electronic surveillance to monitor the communications of European leaders, including their personal cellphone conversations. Expressions of outrage and criticisms over US actions were strong enough to evoke the worst reaction possible from Obama. Yet, for his part, he has displayed great calm. While he speaks with a golden tongue about European friends and allies, he knows that forgiveness will not be felt any time soon. He likely senses European leaders will be difficult to work with for a while.
Nevertheless, the heaviness of maintaining Europe’s defense falls squarely on the shoulders of each respective country’s leaders. They are the stewards of their country’s national security. There is no desire to send anyone on a “guilt trip,” but the need to voice rage should be tempered by the demands of European security. No benefit will be received from undermining the US leadership when a response from Obama against Iran might prove critical to Europe’s wellbeing. US support for the defense of Europe should not be taken for granted. It has value and must be appreciated.
The Realities of the Military Option and the “Collaborative” Approach
A breakdown of the nuclear negotiations would be a weighty matter and impossible for the Europeans to handle effectively alone. Statements about sanctions and conveying outrage after such an occurrence would simply amount to lip service. The Iranians are capable of calculating what the consequences of such measures would be, and would try to mitigate the effects of them as best as possible. The Europeans would need to support diplomacy with the threat force, but that cannot be achieved without US cooperation. No state can replace the US on the world stage.
If the European leaders fully agree with taking action, they may find it necessary to press the matter forward with the US. Despite stating that the military option remains on the table, the Obama administration might find it difficult to decide on military action against Iran. The White House may calculate that attacking Iran preemptively to protect Europe is not a viable option because the costs for the US are too high. Obama’s foreign policy agenda is rife with challenging issues, including Syria and Ukraine. After fully considering what a US attack on Iran will mean for their countries, European leaders must examine ways in which their relationships with Obama might promote a decision to proceed. They should consider taking a more cooperative, supportive approach with him to ensure the matter is moved forward.
None of this is intended to suggest European leaders embark on an approach akin to manipulation. Rather, they should engage in a collaborative effort with Obama. European leaders must embrace the reality that the US holds the lion’s share of military power in the West and it is the only country that would contend with Iran if it poses a threat to Europe (even though Britain and France have nuclear forces of their own). To that extent, the US has the greatest stake in the success of the Geneva talks in the West because a breakdown in the nuclear negotiations could lead it to war. Although backchannels and bilateral talks between the US and Iran may be a source of consternation for European leaders, they must remain patient while the US finds its way through the process.
There must also be forthright discussions with the US on a mutually acceptable rationale for military action and the difficulties of taking military action. They must be willing to ask the US to guarantee that it will stand with them to the extent that it would act preemptively to protect European territory; if that is what they want. European leaders must consider how they can work in partnership with the US to the greatest extent possible to formulate and implement a plan for responding against Iran. They must make it known at the UN, in NATO, and in their respective countries capitals, that the US can count on their support. If military action is deemed necessary, Obama should be encouraged to rise up to meet the situation.
The Way Forward
If the Geneva nuclear negotiations breakdown, the Europeans can either hope for the best or support military action. Sanctions are the greatest threat European leaders alone can pose to Iran if the Geneva talks fail. However, cutting off business deals will unlikely serve their security needs regarding Iran. Even if European leaders were to agree that a military response is necessary, the truth is no European country has the capability to act. A united European front in support of a military response would not help either. The only country capable of attacking Iran to protect Europe is the US. The US pledge to defend its European partners and allies is unwavering. Yet, the prospect of a new war is abhorrent to the Obama administration.
It is uncertain whether pre-emptive action would be taken by the US despite having the ability to respond militarily to Iran’s program. For Obama, the alternative exists of waiting to see if Iran will take action with a newly developed, long predicted, nuclear capability. That could have devastating consequences for Europe. Ensuring US action will prove to be daunting. The Europeans will need to team-up with the US and support its Iran policy. European leaders must guarantee they will stand by the US if military action becomes necessary. Contradictory statements on Iran policy emanating from the US and Europe do not foster a perception of unity. Unity is crucial and it will help ensure the continent remains secure. Given the low cost that would be incurred by a collaborative and supportive approach with the US on military action, if talks fail, it would hardly make sense not to try this tact.