Europe faces up to Iranian threat
By Olivier Guitta
United States President George W Bush has just ended a seven-nation tour of the Middle East trying to gather support on the Iranian threat. He does not need to fly to Europe to convince some European nations of the gravity of the threat. In fact, the December US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) report did not change a thing in Europe's assessment of the Iranian danger, even though it said Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program years ago.
A not well-known fact shows Europe's determination vis-a-vis Iran: the European Union has gone further than the two United Nations
Security Council resolutions against Iran actually require. It has sanctioned additional entities and banned some additional transactions.
For instance, Dutch universities and research centers have been told by authorities to be very careful in accepting Iranian students, especially those studying sensitive subjects. For example, Twente University just refused admission to three Iranian students wanting to study nuclear techniques. It is also thinking about refusing to admit altogether any students coming from Iran.
This European tough stance is all the more surprising since huge commercial interests are at stake. In fact, as of 2006, the EU was from far the largest Iranian trade partner at 28% - before China at 12%. Interestingly, one of Iran's largest trading partner is France. And France under the new Nicolas Sarkozy administration, has taken the lead on the Iranian nuclear issue.
Compared to his predecessor Jacques Chirac, Sarkozy has been quite forceful and consistent on his statements regarding Iran. He has time and again said Iran must be prevented from getting a nuclear bomb. Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner went as far as saying that the world should be prepared for war over this issue. Also, Sarkozy has been pushing hard to convince EU countries to adopt their own sanctions against Iran. Iran is noticing this change of heart from some Europeans nations and is not liking it a bit.
In fact, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has threatened French President Nicolas Sarkozy in a November 12 letter. According to diplomatic sources cited by Le Monde, the tone of the letter was "acrimonious" and it contained "veiled threats". In substance, the Iranian president says France and Iran have "historic relations" and "common interests", in particular in Lebanon, and that it would be a shame to reduce this to nothing. Also, Ahmadinejad is upset by the French proposal to adopt sanctions against Iran at the EU level, ie outside of the United Nations.
It is interesting to note that Ahmadinejad added that such an approach is doomed to failure because neither Germany nor Italy would sign on. But in light of recent developments, Ahmadinejad's analysis seems flawed. Indeed, the word from Berlin is that the Angela Merkel administration is ready to accept sanctioning Iran at the EU level if a third wave of sanctions fail at the UN, which is a given.
And this is a change. In fact, Germany was until this year Iran's largest trading partner (China is currently first) and has been reluctant in the past to adopt a hard line against the regime in Tehran. But in a clear sign of disengagement, German exports to Iran fell 16% in 2007 and German banks have cut lots of ties with Iranian clients.
But in light of this, Iran could use the terrorism weapon to punish European nations. For example, the Ahmadinejad letter was also a warning to French soldiers present among the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon contingent in southern Lebanon. Also, it is very likely that Iran could use its proxy, Hezbollah, to orchestrate a terror campaign in Europe or against European interests around the world, as it did in 1986 in the streets of Paris.
At the end of November, British authorities confirmed that some Hezbollah sleeper cells disseminated throughout the United Kingdom were threatening to strike in case of attacks against Iran. Iran financed the Hezbollah cells at the onset of its nuclear program, expecting an armed conflict. These cells are just awaiting Tehran's orders to strike. And Europe might well be the first target.
Olivier Guitta, an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and a foreign affairs and counter-terrorism consultant, is the founder of the newsletter The Croissant (www.thecroissant.com).
(Copyright 2008 Olivier Guitta.)