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A key role for Europe in US-Iran conflict

EUROPE's initiative to prevent a military confrontation between the United States and Iran represents a new coming of age in world affairs for a Europe often described as an economic giant but a geo-political dwarf. Nowhere is this more true than in Germany.

The European initiative, led by Germany, France, and Britain, would give Iran major economic benefits in exchange for the Iranians giving up their aspirations to become a nuclear power. Specifically, Tehran would get membership in the World Trade Organization, trade deals, security guarantees, and nuclear fuel for peaceful uses such as nuclear power generation.

A preliminary agreement in mid-November produced an Iranian commitment to suspend work on uranium enrichment, but a follow-up agreement is still to be negotiated, and nobody here expects a final deal until after the Iranian presidential election next year, since none of the candidates can afford politically to appear weak.

Any deal would need US approval, and Washington's view of the European initiative thus far has ranged from skeptical to contemptuous. The Bush administration believes, with good reason, that the Iranians have been lying about their nuclear program. Officials consider the Europeans naive. The more hawkish officials in the administration want "regime change" or a "surgical strike" against Iranian nuclear facilities.

Both options, however, will be far more difficult than in Iraq, since Iranian nuclear facilities are both dispersed and hardened, and since President Bush has just about run out of US ground troops in the Iraq occupation.

German officials point out that their Iran initiative is a breakthrough, since for the first time in recent memory the leading European powers are both united and proactive, as well as independent from Washington, on a major issue that threatens the peace.

Yet everyone I spoke with here took pains to point out that this initiative is not seen as an effort to have Europe outflank the United States, and there is sober concern about Iran playing off the United States against Europe. "In the end, this will be successful only if the United States goes along," said one senior Iran expert.

Another official told me, "There is no popular support here or anywhere in Europe, for Europe to be a counterweight to the United States." Rather, German officials see their role as demonstrating that there are diplomatic alternatives to a repeat of US Iraq policy in Iran.

Officials here are also sensitive to the American charge that European leaders are naive about what can be negotiated with Iran. "We accept that the Iranians are likely to try to cheat," a member of parliament close to the government told me." He added, "Even so, a agreement would buy time and would put in place a monitoring system that would make it less likely that Iran would cheat."   Continued...

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