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Western Europe’s Reluctant Lurch Toward Bush on Iran

When France’s foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, suggested last month that war may be the only way to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, he sounded more like a Washington hawk than your typical French politician.

Kouchner is not the only top European official who is changing his tune on Iran.

The obstinacy of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is forcing European decision makers to question the notion that his nuclear ambitions can best be restrained through diplomatic means. The result has been a surprising shift toward American and Israeli views.

The development is encouraging for anyone who regards Iran as a major security threat. It may not last, however. If Europeans get the feeling that the Bush administration is playing the military card too openly, the current transatlantic thaw may end as suddenly as it began.

Ever since the Bush administration started to prepare for war against Saddam Hussein in 2002, the frontlines were clear: Germany, France and Russia were standing together against American unilateralism, while Britain was supporting the United States all the way. But the leaders in three of the four countries have changed, and so have their views on the world.

Germany’s conservative chancellor, Angela Merkel, likes to see herself as a transatlantic mediator rather than an anti-American demagogue like her leftist predecessor Gerhard Schröder. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, in a historic U-turn, even likes to present himself as a friend of the United States. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, meanwhile, has tried to distance himself from President Bush, on Iraq in particular.

The result has been one of those rare instances where the three E.U. heavyweights sound the same on a key security issue: Brown, Sarkozy and Merkel all want to give diplomacy more time, but do support tougher sanctions and do not rule out a military strike as a last resort. Sarkozy is pushing his European partners to impose unilateral sanctions on Iran if, as expected, Russia and China block a full-fledged embargo in the Security Council.

Russia’s Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, appears to be moving ever closer to the Iranian camp. During his latest visit to Tehran, he warned against even thinking “of making use of force in the region.” So suddenly, the Europeans are finding themselves aligned with the United States and opposed to Russia on the most sensitive security issue of the day.

But things are not that easy. Russia’s leaders are at least as concerned about Iranian nuclear designs as America’s are, perhaps even more so. The two nations share a border and Russia would regard a nuclear Iran as a direct security challenge, perhaps as much as Israel does. But they are also afraid that an Iran that feels threatened and isolated would become even less predictable and may foster unrest among Shi’ites in Russia’s southern provinces. So Putin is betting everything on the success of quiet diplomacy, hoping that he can avoid both provoking Iran and falling in line with Bush.

For Sarkozy and Merkel, calling for economic sanctions is easier than implementing them. Iran remains a minor economic force, but some French and German companies have strong trade ties there — the French oil group Total is a major investor in Iranian oil and gas fields — and hope to cash in on the region’s oil-driven bonanza.

A policy that carries the risk of a military showdown would be unpopular with the voting public and is viewed with skepticism among most security experts, who do not believe that bombing raids and other military operations could succeed in Iran. Even the outspoken Kouchner was forced to back away from his bellicose remarks and reassure the French that he is not a “warmonger.”

Most Europeans are watching Washington’s Iran debate with great concern. They fear that the Bush people see a military strike against Iran not as a last resort in an intricate diplomatic game, but as a chance to leave the White House with a bang and return to the neoconservative enthusiasm that existed before Iraq turned into a quagmire. So when Bush last week warned that a nuclear Iran could mean “World War III,” he most upset those German and French diplomats who actually want to push for a harder line.

Perhaps the hands of all European governments will be forced by developments in Tehran. The departure of nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani and his replacement by hard-line diplomat Saeed Jalili suggest that the window for diplomacy is rapidly closing. Nobody knows whether Sarkozy and Merkel will actually follow through with their threats and join the United States on a showdown with Tehran. But the chance for a unified Western front on Iran is better than ever before.

Eric Frey is managing editor of the Vienna daily Der Standard.

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