You may have missed it, but sometime this spring, the Bush administration decided to subcontract its Iran strategy to Europe. In late February, in a dramatic reversal of its long-standing assertion that the United States will not negotiate with Iran over its nuclear ambitions, the White House unexpectedly announced that it was siding with the "EU 3" — France, Germany and Great Britain — in their efforts to diplomatically stall Tehran's atomic advances. Among the diplomatic and economic carrots now being proffered to Iran's ayatollahs by the Bush administration are a lifting of American opposition to Iran's accession to the World Trade Organization and the provision of aeronautical components for Iran's aging fleet of airliners.
What lies behind this new engagement? It is certainly not that the White House has gone soft on Iran. Administration officials continue to maintain that Iran is covertly pursuing an atomic capability, and have flatly rejected Iranian proposals to retain the means for limited uranium enrichment. Yet, in the absence of a coherent policy designed to thwart Iran's atomic ambitions, American officials have steadily drifted toward Europe's brand of diplomacy.
There are at least three reasons why such an approach is fraught with peril.
The first relates to timing. By signing on to the European diplomatic track, the Bush administration has implicitly embraced France, Germany and Great Britain's schedule for dealing with Iran. Such a step is highly problematic: A study conducted by the Wall Street Journal in the fall of 2004 found that officials throughout Europe uniformly believe Iran to be five to six years away from an offensive nuclear capability. If they are right, Europe's approach certainly makes a good deal of sense. After all, there is still time to halt Iran's steady march toward the bomb. But, if the U.S. intelligence community (to say nothing of American allies in the Middle East) is right in its forecasting, an atomic Iran could become a reality much sooner.
Another timetable is also in play. With Iran's current "reformist" president, Mohammed Khatami, constitutionally barred from seeking re-election once his term in office expires, international pressure is mounting to delay any sort of decisive diplomatic or military response until after Iranians go to the polls in June — even if Iran demonstrates bad faith in its negotiations with Europe in the interim. Moreover, under this rationale, Iran's new president will need time to craft a cabinet, assume control of the country's sprawling bureaucracy and formulate his own stance on Iran's nuclear program — a process that could take additional weeks, if not months.
All of this means that a concerted trans-Atlantic policy toward the Islamic Republic will not materialize until substantially later in 2005, at the earliest. In the meantime, the Iranian regime acquires valuablebreathing room to forge ahead with its nuclear development.
The second reason has to do with style. Despite earnest European denials, the current EU-3 negotiating track is not a new effort. It bears a remarkable resemblance to an earlier European attempt to cajole Iran into giving up its WMD programs and support for terrorism through economic inducements. That initiative, dubbed "critical dialogue," fizzled in 1997, but not before providing Iran with much-needed economic assistance and the political cover necessary to continue its rogue behavior. The current European approach is likely to meet the same fate, irrespective of revived hopes in London, Paris and Berlin for a more constructive sort of engagement with Iran's ayatollahs.
The third relates to objectives. The Bush administration has previously declared that it "will not tolerate" a nuclear Iran. Yet just such a development now appears to be under serious consideration by American allies in Europe. In recent days, Britain, France and Germany, stymied by Iranian intransigence, have reportedly begun contemplating a compromise deal that would enable the Islamic Republic to retain nuclear technology that could be used in the development of an offensive nuclear arsenal. Such a move is anathema to American objectives, and if implemented would decisively dash hopes for any sort of consensus between the United States and Europe.
For the Bush administration, a trans-Atlantic strategy on Iran would certainly serve as a salve for European alliances frayed by the Iraq war and the war on terror. Moreover, hopeful U.S. officials say, buying into the EU-3 approach is a necessary prerequisite for galvanizing a more forceful European response to Iran's atomic advances when the current set of talks does invariably break down.
Sooner or later, though, Washington is likely to grasp that such reasoning increasingly constitutes the triumph of hope over experience. And when the White House does get serious, it will discover that there is no substitute for an independent American strategy toward the Islamic Republic — one that is designed to deter, contain and ultimately transform the regime in Tehran.