How to avoid a transatlantic rift over Iran

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A painful conclusion must be drawn from the Iran controversy: two Gulf wars have taught Middle Eastern rulers – and to a large extent their populations – that if Iraq had possessed nuclear weapons, Saddam Hussein would probably still be in power. The US and the international coalition would not have dared attack him when he invaded Kuwait.

There can be little doubt that most Iranians support their leaders’ nuclear plans. Iran sees itself, somewhat justifiably, as a great nation surrounded by potential enemies in an unstable region. The Arabs never liked the Persians. The Sunnis hate the Shias. Israel and Pakistan have nuclear weapons. The US military is next door in Iraq and President George W. Bush has labelled Iran part of his “Axis of Evil”.

All western countries agree that the problem is very grave. If Iran tests a weapon, other regional powers will follow. This does not mean the US and Europe will always see eye to eye on the issue. The Americans and Europeans have different perspectives. For the US, the regime is the problem. Since September 11 2001, America feels that the main danger to international security comes from governments that combine hostility towards US policy with poor human rights records. For the Europeans, the issue is essentially one of nuclear proliferation and attention must therefore be paid to the regional equation, since this is the main catalyst for a national decision to obtain nuclear weapons. On that basis, a
serious transatlantic crisis may be in the making if the western powers do not reconcile their divergent perspectives.

For the Europeans, it is wrong to concentrate exclusively on the nuclear issue. The broader problem lies in Iran’s relationship with the rest of the world. Many Iranians, especially young ones, want more information, contacts and ideas from abroad. Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad’s victory in the 2005 presidential elections can be attributed to a rejection of a corrupt elite rather than support for his reactionary views. A more open Iran would make it difficult for the mullahs to impose their orthodoxy, which bears heavily on the lives of Iranians in ways that most of them resent. This does not mean Iranians want to become western, or are “pro-American”, or that a US military strike and/or international economic sanctions would not be universally condemned in Iran. But, as Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former US national security adviser, wrote recently: “The mullahs are Iran’s past, not its future.” Western interest lies in Iran becoming more open to the rest of the world.

Unfortunately, it will be difficult to open Iran. The US does not officially recognise the country, although there have recently been informal and discreet talks on Iraq. The contacts have to come essentially from Europe.

Even more difficult, Iran’s leaders understand the population’s desire to connect to the world and they fear for their control over the people. No doubt this is what lies behind the recent and revolting radicalisation of the language used by Mr Ahmadi-Nejad and other Iranian leaders: the anti-Semitic slurs, the threats against Israel and the denial of the Holocaust make it almost impossible for the west to extend an open hand to Iran. It is therefore difficult for the Europeans to continue to maintain a dialogue in the model of the now-shelved EU3 effort on uranium enrichment. This places them in a difficult position because they can no longer come forward with clear policy options: while they do not disagree with the US diagnosis, they remain convinced that fixes will not work. The US refusal last year to offer security guarantees and diplomatic recognition as a complement to the EU3 approach has deprived Europe of its main tool. Western options remain drastically limited. It would be wise to recognise this limitation and avoid definitive statements that cannot be backed by action.

Although Iran’s government is unpopular, Europeans recognise that the post-1979 regime is the country’s first genuinely national one for a long time: the Shah was widely perceived by Iranians as an American puppet and previous regimes had also been foreign-dominated. Foreign interference in Iranian affairs will always be strongly resented. The west must keep this in mind when dealing with Iran to avoid cementing popular support for the leadership. Talk of military strikes, denied for the present by Mr Bush, is exceedingly unhelpful in this respect. The analogy with Iraq is wrong, at least at this stage. If only for military reasons, occupation and regime change is out of the question. “Selective strikes” against nuclear installations would only ensure the eventual development by Iran of nuclear weapons, with massive popular support. And isolating Iran would only buttress an unpopular regime and give it a scapegoat to blame for the country’s difficulties. Any embargo that would strike the population would be as counterproductive as has been the US one on Cuba.

Better to hold our nose and maintain contact with the country while using information, visits, economic relations and the like in the hope that it will weaken the leadership in the long haul. After all, it worked with the Soviets.

The writer is director of the French Centre on the United States (CFE) at the Institut Français des Relations Internationales

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