At a weekend retreat in Finland, the foreign ministers of the EU met alongside the Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu. Among the topics discussed was Iran. And among the conclusions emerging from the gathering, there is the admission by the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, that there is little chance that new sanctions will be passed by the UN Security Council before June. Citing objections from China and Russia, Kouchner said: “We are … talking and talking, trying to get an agreement by negotiation and at the same time working on sanctions. I believe that yes, before June it will be possible, but I’m not so sure.”
Nor is there certainty about the alternative – which, according to the news report, would be unilateral sanctions by the EU and the U.S.
Clearly, there are obstacles on the road to unilateral sanctions – philosophically, many EU countries oppose unilateralism and wish to proceed only after the UN has given the green light. Then, there is the skepticism about sanctions that are not binding on some of Iran’s main trading partners because such measures would fail to bite.
In short, sanctions, even limited ones, are a long way away, and it does not offer any succor to know that EU ministers are “talking about it.”
The fact of the matter is, the last time sanctions were approved was in March 2008, when UN Security Council Resolution 1803 was approved. That was two years ago. Then there was a U.S. presidential election. Then there was a U.S. policy review. Then there were Iranian presidential elections that nobody wished to interfere with. Then there was a summer holiday that nobody wished to spoil. Then there was a U.S. effort to engage the Iranian regime that nobody wished to undermine. Then there was a failed nuclear deal that everyone thought was a win-win situation. Then there was an end-of-the-year deadline that came and went without any Plan B ready to roll out on Jan. 1. Then there was the talking to convince China and Russia (to say nothing of Turkey, which meanwhile became a member of the Security Council), and now there is more talking for Plan C in case Plan B fails. What will the next reason for delay be?
The bottom line is that these are excuses, pretexts, and little else.
There is abundant evidence of Iranian mischief. There is nothing new by now about Iran’s policy of stalling talks. Russian and Chinese interests remain unchanged. The available options for sanctions have been dissected, debated, weighed, assessed, and are known.
It therefore comes down to the following: do the U.S. and the EU wish to stop Iran’s nuclear quest? If so, are they prepared to pay the political price required to make, at least, an honest and worthy effort? Are they willing to face up to the reality that there is simply no international backing for the kind of policies needed to stop Iran now and to avoid conflict in the Persian Gulf later?
If the answer to these questions is yes, there is no need to wait for June. Otherwise, we know what a June deadline means – it means more stalling, more temporizing, more talking, and more procrastinating.