The United States is taking a firm line on what it sees as Iran's attempt to develop nuclear weapons, despite repeated denials from Tehran. The European Union, which does not share the U.S. view that Iran is a member of the so-called "axis of evil," has in the past taken a more lenient approach. Its preference has been for constructive engagement rather than confrontation. But now, in the face of expressions of concern about Iran from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the EU appears to be hardening its line. Is the EU now ready to adopt Washington's assessment of the danger?
Prague, 20 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The United States has made clear that it does not intend to tolerate any attempt by Iran's hard-line Islamic regime to acquire nuclear weapons.
U.S. President George W. Bush, speaking in Washington this week, said there is near universal agreement that the international community must work together to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear capability. "Iran would be dangerous if they have a nuclear weapon," Bush said.
Bush's remarks followed those of his spokesman, Ari Fleischer, who questioned why Iran needs a nuclear program at all. "We have great concerns when a nation that is awash in natural resources, such as Iran's oil and gas, why they would want to develop -- as they claim for peaceful civilian purposes -- nuclear energy, when they have an abundance of oil and gas and don't need nuclear energy," Fleischer said.
The big question is, does Iran actually have a covert nuclear arms program?
Washington's suspicions come at a time when the United States is seeking evidence of weapons of mass destruction in neighboring Iraq. The threat posed by those alleged weapons was the main justification for the invasion of Iraq, and the U.S.'s inability to find such evidence is something of a political embarrassment.
For its part, the European Union has been much milder toward Iran than the U.S., preferring to maintain its policy of "constructive engagement." But this week, the EU seems to have adopted a harder line, although it is still unclear what this will mean in concrete terms.
The new approach coincides with a report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that accuses Iran of failing to disclose its full nuclear program, including plans to manufacture enriched uranium.
Barry Posen, a senior analyst with the U.S. Marshall Fund in Germany, noted one of the basic causes for the alarm: "The Iranians -- as part of what they claim is a [civil] nuclear-energy program -- have made very significant strides, much greater than anyone apparently thought they would, and much greater than the IAEA thought -- in being able to enrich uranium with the centrifuge [project]."
The IAEA has stopped short, however, of saying Iran has a weapons program. Posen, who is currently based in Paris, noted the differences in approach: "My impression is that the United States believes 100 percent that Iran has a [nuclear-weapons] program, and that is not what the IAEA has said, and that is not what the [European] Union has said. What the union has said is that the IAEA is not happy with the way the Iranians have accounted for what they have been doing in the nuclear field."
So, U.S. and EU policies are far from being identical on the issue. Nevertheless, at a ministerial meeting this week, the EU warned Iran that if it wants a planned major trade deal, it must accept tougher nuclear inspections.
The ministers also agreed that, as a last resort, force might be necessary against states or terrorists that acquire weapons of mass destruction, but only where authorized by the United Nations.
As Posen sees it, this is a significant move toward the U.S. position. "It just so happens that this is a good opportunity, if you will, [for the EU] to get back into the good graces of the United States, by being forthright and forceful on this question. So, is there some movement [by the Europeans] in the direction of the United States? Yes, I think they are being more forceful, and I think they are certainly focusing on an issue the U.S. cares a lot about," Posen told RFE/RL.
He said, however, that the Europeans do not seem yet to have reached the conclusion that the Americans appear to have reached -- namely, that Iran has a weapons program and is thus in breach of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
"What are the implications of all this? What the Europeans are claiming is the implications are conditional, meaning, 'You, the Iranians, are not going to get the trade deal you want with us unless you give us what we want on nonproliferation,' which is to say, get clear with the IAEA on your past mistakes, and agree to a more intrusive inspections regime," Posen said.
Posen said the Europeans need to think through what they will do if the Iranians do not accept the tougher inspection regime. He said it's clear that for Washington, the end point is much more sharply focused -- that is, it reserves the option of taking military action if Iran continues to develop its alleged nuclear-weapons capability.