When it comes to Iran, the Obama administration could learn a thing or two from Europe. That is because, even as Washington clings doggedly to its plans for "engagement" with Tehran, there are signs that a new consensus is emerging in Europe about confronting the Islamic Republic.
On Nov. 24, the Dutch parliament caused a minor political earthquake on the Old Continent when it voted to designate Iran's powerful clerical army, the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC), as a terrorist group under Netherlands law. The same measure also called for the IRGC to be put on the European Union's terror list--a step that would harmonize U.S. and European approaches toward Iran's ideological army.
The move was as encouraging as it was unexpected. While the Netherlands has sporadically taken the Iranian regime to task for its repressive domestic conduct, it has nonetheless tended to conduct business as usual with the Islamic Republic. As a result, the decision by Dutch politicians to effectively put their money where their mouth is took many by surprise.
But it is not an isolated incident. Elsewhere in Europe, other countries are also getting more serious about targeting Tehran. In a page lifted from the Bush administration's playbook, the British government recently invoked counter-terrorism legislation to freeze business ties with Iran's national shipping carrier, IRISL. The European Commission, meanwhile, is for the first time carrying out a feasibility study of sanctions that could be levied against the Islamic Republic. The results will likely provide the basis for Europe's negotiating position early next year, when the United Nations and the "5+1" group will both reconvene to consider new punitive measures against the Iranian regime.
Add to all this the sterner rhetoric now emanating from Paris, Berlin and London, and it's easy to see why experts are waxing cautiously optimistic. The European Union, Emmanuele Ottolenghi of the Brussels-based TransAtlantic Institute recently told a policy conference in Berlin, "is much closer to backing sanctions in some form than ever before."
That this new activism is uncharacteristic is something of an understatement. Historically, on the issue of Iran, the E.U. has styled itself as a more savvy diplomatic counterweight to harsh American "hyperpower." But the emergence of concerted movement for sterner action against Iran on the Old Continent, driven by grassroots organizations like Stop The Bomb, is a noteworthy development. And while they are still on the margins of the Continental consensus concerning Iran, these efforts are starting to move the dial in the debate over what to do about Iran.
Without Washington's support, however, they are likely to wither on the vine. Already, proponents of the traditional European status quo have raised objections to this newfound activism, arguing that Europe shouldn't prejudice the outcome of America's diplomatic dialogue with the Iranian government. U.S. outreach to Iran, in other words, is in danger of becoming an excuse for inaction among the very people with whom the Obama administration is seeking to forge an international consensus against Iran.
That would be a real tragedy. For, in the international standoff over Iran's nuclear program, it is Europe that holds all the leverage. Two-way trade between the Islamic Republic and E.U. states is set to surpass $10 billion this year, and Iran is estimated to import nearly 40% of its high technology from Europe. Serious curbs on this commerce could have a devastating effect on Iran's already-flagging economic fortunes, dramatically ratcheting up the costs to Iran's ayatollahs of their nuclear endeavor.
It is hard not to see the irony. In the 6.5 years since Iran's nuclear program broke out into the open, Washington has exhibited most of the political will, but little of the practical leverage, necessary to tackle the Islamic Republic's atomic ambitions. Europe, meanwhile, has had plenty of economic clout but no desire to rock the boat in its dealings with Tehran.
Today, the situation is very different. Even as Washington has embraced a softer stance toward Tehran, its allies across the Atlantic Europe are hardening theirs. The Obama administration would do well to take note of this new reality. If it is truly serious about preventing the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran, it would do even better to exploit it.