EU faces tough choice on Iran

Times Staff Writer

With tough new U.S. sanctions against Iran now in place, the next step falls to European nations: Will they agree on biting measures of their own, the only way to make the unilateral U.S. action truly effective?

European officials expressed worry Friday that the Bush administration’s designation of Iranian agencies and firms as supporters of terrorism and purveyors of weapons threatens efforts to bring Iran back into the fold of diplomacy. That could erect a formidable barricade against relations with Tehran for years to come, some analysts warned.

“It will make things much more difficult,” said Alex Bigham of the London-based Foreign Policy Center, echoing the uneasy sentiment across the continent about the go-it-alone U.S. stand. “Obviously this is about Bush trying to be tough and ratchet up the pressure on Iran, but also it’s kind of trying to lock in his successor. Because it’s one thing to put an organization on the terrorist list, and quite another matter to take it off.”

The U.S. on Thursday imposed sweeping sanctions targeting Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, which it labeled a proliferator of weapons of mass destruction, and more than 20 individuals and companies associated with the powerful military organization. The Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force unit was declared a supporter of terrorism.

The measures not only prohibit U.S. business contacts but also threaten access to American markets for foreign companies that do business with designated companies in Iran.


But many European analysts said Friday that it would be difficult to hope to engage Tehran in negotiations while attempting to isolate groups such as the Revolutionary Guard, from whose ranks Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and many of his colleagues have emerged.

Cornering Iran’s military hard-liners could diminish the government’s willingness to negotiate and is unlikely to produce the hoped-for wedge between the Revolutionary Guard and the Iranian public, many Europeans fear.

“The idea that there is a clear separation between the population and the Revolutionary Guard is completely false,” said Thierry Colville of the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris.

“There has been an eight-year war with 500,000 dead in Iran,” he said, referring to the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. “It looks like the U.S. has forgotten this war, which legitimized the Guard.”

European leaders feel compelled to support those in the Bush administration who favor sanctions over military threats, yet are concerned about jeopardizing their own lucrative business ties to Iran.

Europe is Iran’s biggest trading partner, and even the tough new U.S. sanctions will not bite unless European businesses scale back their multibillion-dollar trade and investments in Iran. Several European banks have curbed their ties with Tehran. But European oil and engineering firms continue to do a robust trade, underwriting much of Iran’s new oil and gas expansion and industrial operations.

Still, a consensus is emerging that the European Union will have to adopt its own unilateral sanctions, possibly within the next few weeks, to complement the U.S. action. Europe’s support is needed, particularly in the face of Russian and Chinese reluctance, if the administration hopes to force Iran to back down on its controversial uranium enrichment program.

Russia’s position was clear Friday: “Why aggravate the situation now, why push [Iran] into a blind alley, threaten it with sanctions or hostilities?” said President Vladimir V. Putin, who a day earlier described the new U.S. sanctions as “running around like a madman with a razor blade in his hand.”

Britain, which has come out strongly endorsing both the unilateral U.S. steps and the idea of a third round of United Nations sanctions if Iran does not comply with international demands, is pushing for strong EU action.

But the U.S. should not get impatient if the Europeans take their time in order to achieve a consensus, especially since Europe has already imposed an arms embargo on Iran, a British official said Friday, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“The EU haven’t exactly been sitting and not delivering anything on this. Yes, it has been a slow process, but that’s the way the EU works, on the basis of consensus,” the official said.

Now, following French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s call for independent EU action on sanctions to back up President Bush, European leaders are looking at various measures. They include banning travel and restricting visas for some Iranian officials, freezing assets and levying penalties that would target key players in Iran’s nuclear program.

“You’ve got to hit them where it hurts, which is obviously what the Americans decided to do. So now is the time to bring the EU’s quite significant pressure to bear on Iran, and look at practical measures,” the British official said.

European leaders say an EU decision could be made within the next few weeks, with the possibility of another round of sanctions at the United Nations Security Council if the U.N.'s nuclear monitoring organization, the International Atomic Energy Agency, does not report full cooperation from Iran before then.

Bringing on board nations such as Germany and Italy, which together had more than $7 billion in exports to Iran last year, will be difficult. Berlin already saw Russia pick up the contracts German companies abandoned for Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power station; now, European companies fear that Russia and China will move in if the EU imposes sanctions outside a U.N. framework.

There are signs, however, that both Germany and Italy are prepared to back whatever consensus is reached within the EU.

One factor is Germany’s desire to make sure sanctions have a chance to work, as a means of discouraging the alternative prospect of military action, said Henning Riecke of the German Council on Foreign Relations in a phone interview from Berlin.

“If you have too weak sanctions, or if you don’t agree to them, you might play into the hands of those in Washington who want to seek a military solution, the Cheney faction,” Riecke said, referring to U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney. “So to support the supporters of a diplomatic solution, you had better support sanctions.”

Italy so far has taken a wait-and-see approach, preferring no increase in sanctions, but unprepared to buck a European tide.

It seems unlikely that France’s Sarkozy will be successful in prevailing on his European partners to adopt tough unilateral sanctions, said Franco Pavoncello, president of John Cabot University in Rome, in a telephone interview. Many feel “that maybe this is not the proper time to push the Iranians into a corner.”

“But should Europe go along with America,” Pavoncello said, “you won’t have Italy producing a lonely voice and saying no.”


Achrene Sicakyuz of The Times’ Paris Bureau contributed to this report.