On Iran sanctions, ball in Europe's court

Unilateral U.S. action causes concern among officials there

October 27, 2007|By Kim Murphy | Kim Murphy,Los Angeles Times

LONDON -- With tough new U.S. sanctions against Iran in effect, the next step falls to European nations. The unilateral U.S. action might be effective only if they agree on strict measures of their own.

European officials worried yesterday that the Bush administration's designation of Iranian agencies and companies as supporters of terrorism and purveyors of weapons threatens efforts to bring Iran back into diplomatic negotiations. That could impede relations with Tehran for years to come, some analysts said.

"It will make things much more difficult," said Alex Bigham of the London-based Foreign Policy Center, echoing the sentiment across the continent regarding the go-it-alone U.S. stand. "Obviously, this is about [President] Bush trying to be tough and ratchet up the pressure on Iran, but also it's kind of trying to lock in his successor. Because it's one thing to put an organization on the terrorist list and quite another matter to take it off."

The United States imposed sweeping sanctions Thursday aimed at the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which it labeled a proliferator of weapons of mass destruction, and more than 20 individuals and companies associated with the military organization. The Revolutionary Guard's Quds Force was declared a supporter of terrorism.

The measures prohibit contacts by U.S. businesses and threaten access to U.S. markets for foreign companies that do business with targeted companies in Iran.

Many European analysts said yesterday that it is shortsighted to hope to engage Iran in negotiations while trying to isolate groups such as the Revolutionary Guard, from whose ranks Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and many of his colleagues have emerged.

Hemming in Iran's military hard-liners could diminish the government's willingness to negotiate and is unlikely to produce the hoped-for wedge between the Revolutionary Guard and the Iranian public, many Europeans fear.

"The idea that there is a clear separation between the population and the Revolutionary Guard is completely false," said Thierry Colville of the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris.

"There has been an eight-year war with 500,000 dead in Iran," he said, referring to the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. "It looks like the U.S. has forgotten this war, which legitimized" the Revolutionary Guard.

European leaders feel compelled to support officials in the Bush administration who favor sanctions over military power, but they are ambivalent about jeopardizing their lucrative business ties to Iran.

Europe is Iran's biggest trading partner, and the U.S. sanctions will not hurt it unless European businesses scale back their billions of dollars' worth of trade with and investments in Iran.

Several European banks have restricted ties with Tehran, but European oil and engineering companies continue to do a robust trade, underwriting much of Iran's oil and gas expansion.

Still, a consensus is emerging that the European Union will adopt unilateral sanctions, possibly within the next few weeks, to complement the U.S. action. The Bush administration needs Europe's support, particularly in the face of Russian and Chinese reluctance, if it hopes to force Iran to back down on its uranium-enrichment program.

Russia's position was clear yesterday, when President Vladimir V. Putin said, "Why aggravate the situation now? Why push [Iran] into a blind alley, threaten it with sanctions or hostilities?" A day earlier, Putin described the new U.S. sanctions as "running around like a madman with a razor blade in his hand."

Britain, which has strongly endorsed the U.S. unilateral sanctions and the idea of a third round of U.N. sanctions if Iran does not comply with international demands, is pushing for strong European Union action.

But the United States should not get impatient if the Europeans take their time in achieving a consensus, especially given that Europe has imposed an arms embargo on Iran, a British official said yesterday, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"The EU haven't exactly been sitting and not delivering anything on this. Yes, it has been a slow process, but that's the way the EU works, on the basis of consensus," the official said.

After French President Nicolas Sarkozy's call for supporting Bush with independent EU action on sanctions, European leaders are looking at measures that include banning travel to Iran and restricting visas for some Iranian officials, freezing Iranian assets and levying penalties that would target key figures in Iran's nuclear program.

"You've got to hit them where it hurts, which is obviously what the Americans decided to do. So now is the time to bring the EU's quite significant pressure to bear on Iran and look at practical measures," the British official said.

Kim Murphy writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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