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Contentions

Deterring Ourselves

Two news reports from the last day highlight poignantly the paralysis of the West in the face of a nuclearizing Iran. One is a Washington Times piece by Eli Lake outlining recent and prospective developments with the financial “pressure track” against Iran.  The other is Der Spiegel Online’s account of the sanctions package being prepared by the EU nations.

The Lake piece is less remarkable: one of many that clarify how heavily dependent any sanctions regime will be on the honest participation of China. The piece makes a telling foil to the Der Spiegel report, however, in part because the two articles share a particular rhetorical characteristic. They lead with language that evokes strength and energy in the approach of the West to Iran. Momentum-sapping caveats are sequestered at the end of each article, receiving little treatment of any kind and certainly not consideration commensurate with their significance.

Der Spiegel’s report has quite a promising tone overall: “massive sanctions,” “choke off imports,” “banish the Iranian central bank.” But read to the end and you find that the emerging European proposal is hostage to two self-imposed constraints listed briefly in the final paragraph: a UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution as a legal foundation, and the backing of nations like Turkey, Brazil, and the Persian Gulf states.

Getting a UNSC resolution is, of course, dependent on Russia and China, which can exercise vetoes. That challenge has proved insuperable for years. But the stated reason for the second constraint — obtaining the backing of non-Western nations — is a window on the soul of the modern West. The purpose is not the practical one we might expect: to strengthen the effectiveness of sanctions, which Turkey and the Gulf states in particular could easily undermine. The concern is rather that Iran could complain of being targeted by a Western conspiracy, or the “vassals of Israel.”

To give the Europeans the benefit of the doubt, we may assume that they’re thinking of the backlash from Islamists in their own capitals if Iran claims such victimhood. But this point is only superficially persuasive. For one thing, the mullahs accuse everyone who opposes Iran of conspiracy and vassalage to Israel. It’s reflexive, not contingent on the exact nature of what anyone else does. Moreover, any backlash would probably create worse domestic problems for Turkey and the Gulf nations than it would for Europe, so attempts to gain their overt political support are unlikely to meet with success.

But the more profound concern is that if no action is taken, and taken soon, the outcome will be a nuclear-armed theocratic pariah state, one whose leaders have an apocalyptic vision of their nation’s role on earth. This nation already sponsors terrorism and insurgencies abroad. Having nuclear arms will give Iran’s disruptive activism a new strategic cover. Europe will be in range of Iranian nuclear missiles before North America is. Yet the West clearly doesn’t take this threat seriously enough to lift the self-imposed constraints — even the patently absurd ones — that are the main obstacles to action.

If Iran’s revolutionary regime does acquire nuclear weapons, the reported EU concern about a pre-nuclear Iran playing the victim card for effect will go down as one of the most foolish in history. Surely, future generations might say, the men and women of the 2010s didn’t stay their hand against Iran because of that.



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