- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Are the United States and Europe finally ready to face the crisis over Iran’s nuclear program together?

If that is indeed the case, two factors have conspired in favor of this auspicious development in trans-Atlantic relations. One is the sheer bloody-mindedness of the Iran leadership, which has rejected every deal offered to allow Iran to have a peaceful nuclear program, but not a military one. The other is the changing political configuration among the major powers in Europe, as demonstrated by the successful visit of the new German chancellor, Angela Merkel, to Washington last week.

This week, the foreign ministries of Britain, France and Germany finally began drafting a resolution to the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which meets in Vienna on Feb. 2 and 3, to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council for violations of previous agreements. Such a referral is a step the Bush administration has persistently lobbied for as the first in a long process that hopefully will end up with Iran facing international isolation unless reason prevails in Tehran.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has worked overtime to agree with Europeans on a common strategy, applying the lesson from the Security Council debacle over Iraq. So far the strategy has succeeded at least in painting Iran and its ambitions as a nuclear power as the problem, not the so-called belligerence and unilateralism of the United States.

The amazing tin ear and stubbornness of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have contributed a lot to this success of this strategy. His recent statements about Israel have caused shock and disgust abroad. Not only has he publicly advocated the destruction of Israel, he has also stated that the Holocaust did not take place. And for good measure he has stated that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s massive stroke was something he had hoped for. The idea of this man with nuclear weapons at his disposal has brought diplomats together like nothing before.

Further, Mr. Ahmadinejad has stated that Iran has every right to become a nuclear power, and has taken moves to restart its nuclear research program. A last-ditch Russian offer (somewhat dubious in its own right) to enrich uranium on Russian soil seems to have been rejected by Tehran.

The obstacles to referring Iran to the U.N. Security Council for possible international sanctions have been twofold. One is the well-known European proclivity for preferring negotiation to action. Every Iranian breach of agreement has been met with European pleas to give Tehran yet one more chance. The other is the equally well-known Russian and Chinese reluctance to act against an important trading partner, and, in China’s case, energy supplier.

Since the German elections brought the plain-spoken and pro-American Mrs. Merkel to power presiding over a grand-coalition government, however, President Bush has found a new ally in certain important areas of U.S. foreign policy. During her get-acquainted visit last week, Mrs. Merkel made it clear that she had no use for people, like the Iranian leadership, who keep breaking their word and threaten others.

It further appears that the two leaders established a good rapport — Mr. Bush said cautiously “I think I like her” — which could vastly change the dynamic across the Atlantic. Gone is the reflexive friendship between French President Jacques Chirac and former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who often presented a united front against the United States and Britain. Though the Social Democrats continue to hold the Foreign Ministry through the grand-coalition arrangement that came out of Germany’s messy fall election, Mrs. Merkel set the general tenor of German relations with the United States.

Furthermore, she is promising to be an important interlocutor with Russia, having already displayed a knack for bridge building. She helped negotiate a solution to the disagreements over the European Union’s budget, and now she is tackling the question of getting Russia on board with U.N. Security Council sanctions, apparently with some initial success.

If, however, these efforts fail, and the Security Council becomes deadlocked yet again, the next test of trans-Atlantic relations will be whether the Europeans will follow the United States in imposing a stringent set of non-U.N. sanctions imposed by countries concerned about the chilling prospect of Iranian nuclear power and future proliferation activities. The territory ahead is rocky, and we had best travel it together.

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