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Europe's Unique Opportunity to Act

Posted: 06/12/2012 11:10 am

The nuclear talks in Baghdad between Iran and the Permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) failed to produce a breakthrough. The bad news is that time is running out. By July 1, the West will escalate with an embargo on oil and sanctions on Iran's Central Bank. Iran will respond in kind and the situation may get out of control. The good news is that the ball is in Europe's court and -- unlike America -- the EU has the ability to make diplomacy succeed in the short term.

After more than a decade of coercive policies, the track record is clear: Iran is paying an increasingly hefty price for its nuclear program. Crippling, indiscriminate sanctions are derailing the Iranian economy and civil society. Even if sanctions are lifted, it may take years before Iran recuperates from the damage it has absorbed.

At the same time, none of this pain has impacted Iran's nuclear calculus in a meaningful way. In fact, Iran's program has progressed and reached several milestones during this period. In 2002, it had less than a few dozen centrifuges, no stockpile of enriched uranium and limited knowledge about the process. Today, it has around 10,000 centrifuges, a stockpile of several thousand kg of enriched uranium, and knowledge of the nuclear fuel cycle that simply cannot be untaught. Any hope to eliminate Iran's enrichment program was lost years ago.

In short, the coercive approach is not the success it is touted to be.

Yet, Iran does not have a nuclear weapon and it is still years from being able to build one. If the coercive approach remains in place, however, the track record indicates Iran will reach a point in which the intensified confrontation with the West will remove any hesitation in Tehran to pursue nuclear deterrence.

If the approach agreed upon in Istanbul in April 2012 is pursued, however, a solution is within reach. There, the two sides agreed to negotiate based on a reciprocal, step-by-step approach within the framework of the Non-Proliferating Treaty. In this concessions-for-concessions approach, both sides would give rather than take, help rather than harm.

But when the rubber hit the road in Baghdad, it turned out that giving wasn't as easy as it sounded. Particularly if you are the President of the United States and you face a hostile U.S. Congress, an obstinate Israeli Prime Minister and an uncertain election in six months.

The U.S. and its allies rightfully demanded that Iran cease enrichment of uranium to 20 percent, ship out its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium and freeze activities at the Fordo plant. These would be very valuable concessions from the Western perspective.

In return, however, no concessions were offered that were considered valuable by Tehran. Reciprocity faltered, primarily because of the president's limited political maneuverability in an election year. All Obama needs is a limited give-and-take to keep the diplomatic process alive till after the U.S. elections, at which point more sincere negotiations can begin.

This is where Europe comes in. It has a unique opportunity to act. Unlike America, the European political landscape is void of the intractable political interests that have a stake in keeping the conflict alive.

By delaying -- not lifting -- its impending embargo on Iranian oil for six months, Europe will give decisive breathing space to an otherwise constricted negotiation process. The Iranians should, in turn, freeze the enrichment of 20 percent uranium for that same period.

Delaying the sanctions will not ease pressure on Iran. According to renowned Iranian economist Bijan Khajehpour, 85 percent of the embargo is already in effect. Delaying its formal imposition will not cause buyers to return to the Iranian market. All it will do is to provide the West with an ability to use the oil embargo as the bargaining tool it was supposed to be -- and exchange it for tangible, verifiable Iranian nuclear concessions.

If the embargo is formally imposed, however, it will become more difficult and costly to lift it and it will serve as naked escalation that will beget Iranian escalation rather than concessions. The risk of war will increase and the threat of an Israeli strike may materialize.

Between sanctions and peace, the choice for Europe should be obvious. Europe must take the step towards peace that American cannot.

Trita Parsi is the author of A Single Roll of the Dice -- Obama's Diplomacy with Iran. Reza Marashi is a former U.S. State Department Iran Desk offcier. Both are with the National Iranian American Council.

 

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