European Affairs

Why has Europe been able to pull together this sustained and cohesive approach? The Iraq war, in early 2003, had made a hash of Europe’s ambitions for a common foreign policy, opening an intra-European divide at a moment when re-nationalization of political life was already discernible across Europe. So the stage hardly seemed set for an effective assertion of the EU’s diplomatic muscle in the Middle East. How, then, to explain the EU-3’s determination and staying power in confronting a belligerent and shrewd leadership in Tehran?

Two important factors shaped the diplomatic playing field. First, Washington’s refusal to negotiate with Tehran both made it necessary for the EU-3 to take the lead on Iran and also enabled them to do so. Had the United States not invaded Iraq and instead focused its attention on containment of Iran, European diplomats would likely have taken a back seat to their U.S counterparts. But with Washington preoccupied with the debacle in Iraq and still refusing to negotiate with its chief adversaries in the region, the EU had a window of opportunity to take the leading role in dealing with Iran.

Second, the fact that the EU-3, not the broader union, comprises Europe’s negotiating team has given EU diplomacy particular coherence and responsiveness in this case. A union whose membership is approaching thirty could never provide collective leadership on issues such as Iran – especially in the absence of the institutional reforms needed to streamline decision-making. The EU should already take away the obvious lesson that a core Europe – or at least ad hoc contact groups formed on select issues – is essential if the EU is to make sustained advances toward a common foreign policy.

Along with these two considerations, there is another dominant explanation for the coherence and unity demonstrated by the EU-3: the Iraq war and its divisive consequences for Europe and the Transatlantic community. In many respects, the ability of the EU-3 to rise to the occasion in dealing with Iran stems from its desire to recover from – and avoid a repeat of – what happened over the invasion of Iraq and the geopolitical turmoil that it has spawned.

The invasion of Iraq led to an open political divide within the EU, pitting a pro-war coalition led by Britain against an anti-war coalition led by France and Germany. On fundamental questions of war and peace, the EU’s leading nations ended up on opposing sides. The quest for European unity had been dealt a crippling blow.

The urgent need to restore comity and cooperation within the EU’s guiding troika provided an important impetus behind the EU-3’s efforts on Iran. In the aftermath of the divide between “old” and “new” Europe, forging and sustaining a common voice became of the utmost importance. Europe’s political future, not just Iran’s nuclear program, was on the line. Maintaining a united front was made all the more important by the failure of the EU constitution, a grievous setback to efforts to deepen integration, particularly on matters of foreign policy.

A similar logic applies at the Transatlantic level. The rift that opened over the Iraq war called into question the integrity of the Atlantic alliance. At least at the outset, that was precisely the objective: France’s President Jacques Chirac and Germany’s Chancellor Gerhard Schröder were ready to contemplate life afer Pax Americana and expedite the onset of a multi-polar world.

But that vision proved more attractive in principle than in reality. The majority of EU member states preferred to maintain the Transatlantic link and extend America’s role as Europe’s strategic guarantor. Moreover, those EU members that opposed the war were left with little leverage over U.S. policy, effectively relegating them to the diplomatic sidelines. Chirac and Schröder, although they enjoyed an initial boost in popularity for standing up to Washington, soon saw their political fortunes and their diplomatic influence lag.

The consequent desire to rebuild Transatlantic harmony played into the determination of the EU-3 to stand together and tough on Iran. To win back Washington’s respect, France and Germany needed to demonstrate that they had the wherewithal to confront Tehran. In response to European objections to toppling Saddam Hussein, the neo-conservatives had accused Paris and Berlin of appeasement. Both capitals were determined to show that Iraq was a unique case: on Iran, they understood the importance of coercive diplomacy.

In addition, the EU-3 were intent on demonstrating that they could be more than spoilers. On Iraq, Washington justifiably criticized Europe for telling the U.S. what not to do without offering proactive policy alternatives. On Iran, Europeans were determined to take the offense, making clear that they had the political will to take the diplomatic initiative. The gambit paid off. Soon after Bush’s reelection in 2004, the administration agreed to get behind European diplomacy on Iran, calculating that the EU had a sensible game plan and intended to stand its ground against Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

One other factor appears to have strengthened European resolve, particularly in Germany. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is known for his inflammatory rhetoric, especially when it comes to his calls for the destruction of Israel and his denial of the Holocaust. Such behavior provokes moral outrage in Germany, whose own past makes the country particularly sensitive to Ahmadinejad’s anti-Semitic outbursts. Public outrage has strengthened the ability of the German government to maintain a hard line on Iran policy.

With the EU-3 in the lead, a Transatlantic consensus on Iran has been sustained for the past two years. To be sure, maintaining that consensus has required compromise, with Washington having deferred to Europe’s repeated willingness to let deadlines pass without pressing for sanctions. America’s preoccupation in Iraq and Transatlantic concern about Russian and Chinese objections to sanctions have played important roles in inducing flexibility in U.S. policy. And European governments have proved much tougher than Washington expected in their determination to keep up the pressure on Tehran over transparency and the tricky core issues such as the right claimed by Iran to have a national program of uranium enrichment.

It is by no means clear whether a Transatlantic or European consensus can be sustained if Iranian intransigence continues and triggers a move to impose sanctions. Should the negotiations move out of the United Nations arena in order to circumvent Russian and Chinese vetoes, it will be far more difficult to sustain European unity. Should the sanctions tighten and the likelihood of military intervention mount, a new transatlantic rift would be hard to avoid.

On the other hand, a negotiated settlement to the crisis would certainly help repair the transatlantic link and give a much-needed boost to Europe’s efforts to assume greater geopolitical responsibilities in an effective and unified manner. Iran is likely to continue its efforts to foil this outcome, consistently looking to drive a wedge between Europe and the United States. Maintaining a unified front in the face of such pressure offers the best hope of convincing Tehran to seek a diplomatic resolution, thereby avoiding another Transatlantic confrontation that could be even more divisive than the rift over Iraq.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 7, Issue number 3-4 in the Fall/Winter of 2006.