The NYT reports today that the Bush Administration is having a tough time winning European cooperation on tough economic sanctions for Iran. The continent's excuses are two-fold: 1) they have vast commercial interests tied up with Tehran and 2) they lack the legal regimes and infrastructure necessary to implement the sorts of controls that the US Treasury Department is seeking.
Let's assume, as we are forced to in relation to all of the many foreign policy developments that do not break Washington's way of late, that part of their reluctance to cooperate is rooted in frustration and disgust with the Administration. Let's venture that they don't trust the intelligence on the precise state of the Iranian nuclear program, that they fear that the US will make critical policy decisions without consulting them, and that they worry we will play into the hands of Ahmadinejad through ham-handed moves that make him look like a besieged innocent.
Even given all that, they ought to promptly and fully cooperate with an effort to beef up sanctions. Why?
- First off, nothing will embolden the Tehran regime more than a rift between the US and EU over how to react to its nuclear program. With both Russia and China reluctant to clamp down on Iran, and the US bogged down in Iraq, transatlantic resolve is the only foundation for an international response. If it fragments, Iran will think it has little to fear, and Israel may see no alternative but to act alone.
- There are initial signs that the tepid UN sanctions enacted on Iran thus far are having some effects - harming the country's economy and, more importantly, stimulating political dissent
- The logistical hurdles the Europeans cite seem surmountable - EU governments provided $18B in loan guarantees for transactions with Iran in 2005 even though many of the companies dealt with are known terrorist fronts. Since the governments control these funds and guarantees, how hard can it be to cut them off?
- The commercial interests involved are another matter, but not an insurmountable hurdle. If there's a war over Iran or Israel launches a preemptive attack, those interests will be jeopardized anyway. Also, starting a program of distentangling those interests now will be less commercially disruptive than shutting them off suddenly and completely after, for example, an Iranian nuclear test.
- But the most important reason for the Europeans to get serious about sanctions is that they represent one among a precious handful of options for dealing with Iran's nuclear ambitions without military force. Asset freezes and tightened export controls may well not accomplish much, but if they did tip Iran's precarious balance of power it could avert a frightening global crisis now in the works.