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The wages of appeasement

Posted by Richard Tuesday, March 01, 2005

The Wall Street Journal has today had a look at the Iran situation in an opinion piece entitled Carrots for the Mullahs, expressing the view that giving them incentives is a surefire path to a nuclear Iran.

It concludes that the US, with its stake in Iraq and the Persian Gulf, its opposition to terrorist groups that Iran sponsors, and its commitment to spreading democracy in the Mideast, cannot be indifferent to a nuclear Iran.

The problem, the paper says, is not that we have yet to hit on the right mix of carrots and sticks to cajole Iran into responsibility - it is that Iran's theocratic regime is by its nature inimical to American interests; any move that extends its life also prolongs the hazard it poses to the US.

But that does not mean the US should drop diplomacy and take up arms against Iran tomorrow, the paper says. It does mean that if any headway is to be made, the Administration needs to be absolutely clear about Iran's intentions and Europe's motives. Signing on to Europe's strategy offers one certain outcome: a nuclear Iran.

Coincidentally, Reuel Marc Gerecht, fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, also writes on the same subject for The Financial Times, under the heading: "Watch what you wish for in Iran".

He is betting that Iran's nuclear programme is likely to derail any serious rapprochement between the US and western Europe, possibly to the same extent that the Iraq war did.

This is because the EU's approach to a nuclear Islamic republic could become more morally repellent to Bush than was the Franco-German campaign against the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq.

Gerecht suggests that a "convergence" of American and European views is unlikely. Instead Bush will recoil from most of the compromises envisioned by the Europeans yet, as both tough economic sanctions and preventive military strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities are distasteful if not unthinkable to leaders of the EU, "carrots" are, for the Europeans, the only diplomatic tools left.

Gerecht then cites Robert Kagan, the foreign policy historian, who has noted that, when soft power becomes the only option in foreign affairs, appeasement - the preferred European word is "engagement" - becomes a morally and strategically compelling choice.

What the EU really wants from Washington, says Gerecht is "Libya Plus": in exchange for good nuclear comportment, the Bush administration should forgive the Islamic republic its terrorism - the clerics ruling Iran are the same ones who orchestrated the bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996 - without the clerics admitting guilt.

The US should be prepared to promise non-interference in Iran's internal affairs and stop condemning clerical tyranny and publicly ssupporting the country's democratic movement. In other words, the Bush administration should refrain from any action that might resemble Ronald Reagan's strategy toward the Soviet bloc.

If the EU could convince the Bush administration to "engage" Iran in this manner it would, of course, achieve perhaps the most highly-desired Franco-German foreign policy goal: effectively gutting the Bush administration's post-9/11 energy and mission. The Middle Eastern government with the longest terrorist track record could be rewarded with Boeing contracts.

This may be attractive to some in the Bush administration, who want to pass the Iran problem to the Europeans, hoping that EU-Iran negotiations would allow Washington to continue ignoring the conundrum.

Some still hope the Europeans can be converted to a big-stick approach; others, uncomfortable with the grand rhetoric about transforming the Middle East, hope the president will adopt the EU3's Libyan scenario.

But the European proclivity towards rapid concessions - and the near-total absence of will to even allude to big sticks - has disappointed the administration and Iran's ruling mullahs have now brought the EU talks to an impasse.

As a result, the odds are that Bush is not going to do Libya again and the two-decade old strategy of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the influential former president and the driving force behind Iran's nuclear weapons programme, is soon likely to come to fruition.

Says Gerecht, the Islamic republic will have successfully played divide and conquer against the west. But if this leads to a clerical A-bomb, or to a pre-emptive US strike amid a chorus of European outrage, the odds are good that the bonds holding the US and Europe together will further fray. One day, perhaps after the EU lifts its arms embargo on China and France supplies sophisticated radar and torpedo technology to Beijing, they will snap.

Altogether, from two different sources, the prognosis is poor. And the Europeans, it seems, are to be the losers. But that, appeasement did not work in the 30s. Why should it work now?