Iran and the EU

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Do the Europeans really want to prevent a war between the US or Israel and Iran? If they had to choose between curtailing trade with the Islamic republic, or seeing either America or Israel preventatively strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, which would London, Paris and Berlin prefer?

Reuel Marc Gerecht and Gary Schmitt of the American Enterprise Institute argue that the EU is risking world security by not taking a tougher line on sanctions.

Mr Gerecht and Mr Schmitt answer your questions.

Background reading


Q: Do you think the US, the EU, and the rest of the world could stomach putting sanctions on Iran’s hydrocarbon industry by not allowing exports?
Arash Nazhad, Austin

Gary Schmitt: Well, Iran supplies approximately 3 per cent of the world’s oil supply, although some countries, like Italy, are quite dependent on Iranian oil.

It is certainly possible that other oil producing states could make up the difference. In contrast, nearly 85 per cent of Iran’s revenues comes from the sale of oil abroad. And nearly half of its own refined products come from abroad as well. Just from those facts alone, it seems the US and Europe are more in the driver’s seat than is Iran when it comes to “playing chicken” with oil supplies.


Q: The US has to talk with Iran, has to talk with Shia. The problem is not Iran but the Sunni.
Fabrizio, Arezzo, Italy

Reuel Marc Gerecht: Since 1979, the US has almost always been open to talking to Iran, either indirectly, where there has regularly been communication, or even directly (Iran Contra, for example). The US has repeatedly reached out to Iran - most energetically if awkwardly under President Clinton - to have these feelers rebuffed. 

If Iran’s ruler, Ali Khameneh’i were to send a verifiable personal representative from his inner clerical circle to New York tomorrow and ask for direct talks (this would exclude, for example, make-believe letters drafted by the Swiss ambassador in Tehran in 2003), I strongly suspect the Bush administration today would respond favourably even though doing so could damage the multilateral EU3/US approach to handling the nuclear issue. 

Although this is not the moment - precisely because it would likely derail the critical EU3 process - an unconditional US offer to open up simultaneously the American embassy in Tehran (the regime would have to kick out the Rev Guards, who occupy the compound) and the Iranian embassy on Mass Avenue in Washington, DC would be good to do.

The clerical regime will have none of this, of course, since the reopening of the US embassy in Tehran would signal the end of the Islamic Revolution (just imagine Khameneh’i having to listen to the Star Spangled Banner and I think you can appreciate the point).

I do agree, however, on the larger point that the US has a much more difficult problem with Sunni militants than we have with Shia militants. Sunni Islam has not gone through the evolution that we have seen among the Shia at large. Shia death-wish believers seem to belong to the past; this is obviously not the case with those who embrace bin Ladinism and similar creeds.


Q: Given how completely wrong the AEI and all their fellow travellers were about Iraq, why would we listen to anything you have to say about Iran? At what point are we allowed dismiss the opinions of the perennially wrong?
Colman Reilly

Gary Schmitt: Last time I checked, I said before the war that we needed at least 200,000 troops in Iraq to provide stability after removing Saddam and that it would be a 5 to 10 year process of rebuilding a country torn from inside by Saddam. I also wrote in the fall of 2003 that the US and its allies were facing a counter-insurgency and that our military was ignoring that fact, with the consequences that we have seen unfold over the past three years.

And, if you were to read my colleague Reuel Gerecht’s writings on the internal dynamics of Iraq, the Shia and what needed to be done to make things go in a more positive direction over the same period, I think you would be hard pressed to tie the problems in Iraq to our policy recommendations. Sorry, but were not willing to take the fall for how the Bush team has messed this one up. Finally, isn’t “fellow traveller” a line that McCarthy-ites use to use?


Q: Whatever the action taken against Iran, and regardless of whether or not it would be widely agreed by the international community, how will opinion in Iran be won around? Or would the objective of action be merely to force a humiliating climb-down on the part of the Iranian leadership? If the latter, what would you estimate the chances of success in obtaining such a climb-down? How would you estimate the risks of confrontation backfiring, and resulting in an embarrassing climb-down, not for the Iranians, but for the US?
Jonathan Lewis, London

Reuel Marc Gerecht: In the short- or even mid-term, Iranian public opinion on the nuclear issue is irrelevant since the Islamic Republic isn’t a functioning democracy where the people are free to choose their leaders.

Concerning an Iranian climb-down, the chances for that might be pretty good depending on the level of US and European pressure. When confronted with overwhelming force, the regime has backed down before (most notably after the accident with the Vincennes and the intentional sinking of much of the Rev Guards’ and normal navy during the Iran-Iraq War).

The issue is whether the West - particularly the US - seems credible. It will take a lot given how committed the ruling clergy have been to the development of nuclear-weapons, the “pragmatic” Rafsanjani is the true father of the Islamic Republic’s “nuclear-energy” program.

But it’s certainly possible given how much more dependent the Islamic Republic has become to outside, especially European, investment. Would George W. Bush back down? If the President decided to move forward, preparing the ground for a direct confrontation on the nuclear issue - something he has not so far done - it’s unlikely he would back down. He doesn’t appear to be the type.


Q: Nuclear weapons have been kept out of Cuba for the last 44 years, by President Kennedy’s non-aggression pact and Cuba no longer possess any serious military threat to America. Given that success why is it that organisations like yours are not pushing the Bush administration to negotiate a similar agreement with Iran, rather than trying to push the Europeans to support the Bush administrations policy of demanding a unilaterally surrender of Iran?

It seems to me that if the Americans are unwilling to guarantee to the Iranians that they will not attack or invade Iran, (as has been implied, if not threatened) Iran has every right to get nuclear weapons for its own self defence.
Rick James, Helsinki

Reuel Marc Gerecht: Let us recall that the issue of nuclear weapons in Cuba was solved by the Cuban Missile Crisis. I really don’t think we want to go that route again. The preferred route, the one that President Kennedy didn’t take, would have been to show much more resolve and determination when he met Nikita Krushchev earlier in Vienna.

It was, in Krushchev’s own words, Kennedy’s awkwardness and weakness in that encounter that convinced him that he could get away with muscling Kennedy later over weapons in Cuba. Kennedy recovered some nerve and the Soviets were checked.

FYI: it is the stated position of the EU3 that the Iranians do not have the right to nuclear weapons. By your reasoning, it would seem that Castro and the Soviet indeed had the right to put nuclear weapons in Cuba and the Americans were hubristic to object. I suspect you would find little sympathy for that view among Eastern Europeans, Finns included.


Q: Two questions: If we considered Muslim radicalism as a threat to the Western world, isn’t what is happening in Iraq a good thing because they are now preoccupied with attacking each other. If we look at OPEC as a cohesive financial entity that had grown so large it has the power to imbalance the world economy haven’t they been weakened by our actions in the Middle East. This kind of thinking worked well for the British Empire.
Tony Bartoni, US Virgin Islands

Reuel Marc Gerecht: I don’t see these two questions as naturally following from our op-ed, but I’ll try to tackle them in any case. The clash of Sunnis and Shia in Iraq today is radicalising both the communities. This is particularly woeful among the Shia since the radicalisation has been dismantling the traditional social structure - particularly the power of the moderate clergy in Najaf - on which rests the ethics of the Shia community.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and other senior clerics in Najaf, who have strongly backed the democratic process and have consistently counseled patience and non-violence, are individuals you should want to see gain influence. And although the Sunni community was in much worse shape in 2003 - Saddam Hussein and the Baath had nearly wiped out a moderating traditional hierarchy among the Sunni Arabs - it still retains some points of hope.

It’s very hard to see how the violence, which allows young radical men with guns to triumph, can be good for Iraq or the US. The only common ground in this radicalisation will be anti-Americanism.

And although I always think it’s a good idea to weaken cartels - particularly energy cartels - I don’t see how the Iraq war and its aftermath has hurt OPEC. The Sunni insurgency has effectively kept Iraqi oil production way below what it could be, thereby diminishing pressure internationally on oil prices.


Q: Why would we need to have armed conflict with a country that has not and does not want to attack the US? What interest do we have in attacking this country that is nearly three times the size of Iraq, a country that we (US) is not winning against? If Israel wants to attack this country they should, but it should be without the support or consent of the US. Why wont diplomacy work? We defeated Russia through diplomacy and they are a much tougher customer than Iran will ever be.
Joseph, US

Reuel Marc Gerecht: Actually, that’s incorrect: The Islamic Republic has directly and through its proxies attacked the US. The information collected on the Khobar Towers bombing is damning. And we repeat: the same folks who authorised that hit are the same folks today in power - except for Ahmadinejad.

That the clerical regime allowed free passage to al-Qaeda inside Iran after al-Qaeda was regularly attacking the US (the African embassy bombings and suicide- boat run against the USS Cole in Aden - see the 9/11 Commission Report for further information), and that even today members of al-Qaeda remain under “detention’ in Iran - after the Iranian government initially denied that they had any members of al-Qaeda in Iran - is deeply troubling.

The one point on which everyone ought to be able to agree, and certainly the US and the EU3 do agree, is that you don’t want to allow the clerical regime to obtain nuclear weapons. There are obviously differences among the Americans and Europeans on the best method for denying the mollahs nukes, but it is certainly understandable how many folks, particularly if they’re living in Israel, could view nuclear weapons in the hands of the clerical regime as frightful. Sufficiently so to warrant planning for preemptive military strikes.


Q: Since Islamist terrorist attacks in Madrid, London and elsewhere have failed to strengthen the backbone of Europeans against Islamist fundamentalism nor reduced their resentment against the US and Israel, do you believe that there will ever be any event that will awaken Europeans to the real dangers that the entire West faces from Islamic terrorism and that forces them to defend themselves military?
MHL, Bologna, Italy

Gary Schmitt: I take your point but I think there is a distinction to be made here: all the polling data and conversations with security officials in Europe indicate that Europeans are indeed worried about the threat Islamist fundamentalism poses.

The real issue is what to do about it. And there, I would say on the domestic security scene, European governments are far more aggressive than the US government. On the international front, of course, it is just the opposite.


Q: There is not enough proof showing that Iran is going to produce nuclear weapon, so why do Western countries ignore Israel’s mass-destruction weapons and put pressure on Iran?
Sam, Manchester

Gary Schmitt: It is not only the US who thinks Iran is headed toward producing a weapon. Paris, Berlin and London all seem to think the same thing about Iran’s intentions. And, off record, it is difficult to find even anyone at the IAEA who thinks differently as well. As for Israel, as the Saudis or Turks or Egyptians....they don’t go to sleep worried about Israel having a bomb; they do however worry about Tehran’s clerics having one.


Q: What does Iran want in exchange for stopping their nuclear programmes? Could there be any deal similar to the one with North Korea? What is the benefit for Iran in enrichment of uranium other than nuclear programmes?
Rafi, London

Gary Schmitt: It is not clear that there is anything we can give Iran that would in fact lead them to give up their nuclear program. As a state that has clear regional ambitions and is ideologically-driven to challenge the US, Israel and the West more broadly, it needs a weapon to deter others from responding to its terrorism or interference in other countries of the region. In short, it’s the best “ace-in-the-hole” this kind of regime can have.

As for the deal with North Korea, it is far too early to say that this is an agreement that will lead North Korea to give up its weapons. But, note, the reason the North Koreans came to the table again was precisely because we were squeezing them so hard financially. Of course, we will have to see if the deal really pans out; if the past is any prologue, Mr. Kim will use the negotiations to get some aid and assistance but, in the end, not give up his weapons. Finally, Iran has enough natural gas to take care of its power needs for decades to come, and do so far more cheaply than with nuclear power.


Q: Do you really think Bush will risk his legacy stating - under the sleepy eye of the Bush II administration, Iran became a nuclear weapons power and then used this to blackmail the EU?
Eric Kossian, Washington State, US

Gary Schmitt: No one knows what President Bush might do. But he is someone, as all evidence shows, who thinks about how his presidency will to history, not current polls. If I were in Tehran, I would not be confident that the current troubles in Iraq will be sufficient for this president to pass on dealing with Iran’s nuclear program.


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Background reading:

In depth: Iran

How the west can avert war with Iran

EU paper casts doubt on nuclear talks with Iran

EU document on Iran’s nuclear ambitions


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