Divisions in Europe May Thwart U.S. Objectives on Iran

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 18, 2007

European governments are deeply divided over how far and how fast to go in imposing new sanctions against Iran, in what could undermine a new U.S. effort to mobilize allies to act outside of the United Nations, according to European officials.

At a meeting in Brussels on Monday, European Union foreign ministers agreed to consider modest steps but not necessarily the kind of dramatic moves that Washington is now considering, the officials said. The session over what Europe should do to pressure Iran was described by officials as "fractious," "intense" and with "a bit of blood left on the carpet" from the debate.

Britain and France, which initiated the call for joint European action, back tough new multilateral sanctions outside the U.N. Security Council. But other countries, notably Italy and Austria, want significantly less serious steps. Germany fell somewhere in between, said European and U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the debate is not public.

Squeezing Iran through diplomatic pressure and sanctions has become one of the Bush administration's top priorities because of questions about Tehran's nuclear objectives. "My intent is to continue to rally the world, to send a focused signal to the Iranian government that we will continue to work to isolate you in the hopes that at some point in time somebody else shows up and says it's not worth the isolation," President Bush said in a news conference yesterday.

But the Bush administration has been increasingly concerned about the international community losing momentum, since Russia and China -- which both wield vetoes on the Security Council -- have delayed a third U.N. resolution, originally expected to happen this summer, until the end of the year or early next year. Moscow and Beijing also oppose U.S. efforts to significantly increase pressure on Tehran after it failed to comply with two earlier resolutions demanding suspension of a uranium-enrichment program that can be used both for nuclear energy and to develop the world's deadliest bomb.

In response, Washington and Europe last month signaled their intent to organize a parallel process for tougher steps against Tehran. The Bush administration also hopes to bring in other major powers that do business with Iran, such as Japan, Australia and Canada.

But there are already cracks across the Atlantic. While the United States is considering a package of actions that will effectively punish Iran for its intervention in Iraq as well as for its suspected nuclear program, the Europeans do not want to "confuse" the two issues, said a well-placed European official familiar with the debate.

Bush administration officials, for example, want to designate Iran's elite Quds Force as a supporter of terrorism under a presidential executive order. But in European eyes, the Quds Force is linked mainly to arming, training and funding militant factions in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. "We want to keep our eyes on the nuclear file," said a second European official.

The 27-nation European Union is also unlikely to move with the speed preferred by the Bush administration, which fears time will work in Iran's favor if it is developing a nuclear weapons capability. The European Union will not even introduce proposals until its next meeting in mid-November and a vote may not happen this year, European sources added.

A senior administration official said yesterday that Washington was not trying to "foist" a specific formula. "We have not suggested that they emulate exactly what we may or may not do," he said.

A senior U.S. official in Europe said there is no U.S.-European split. "They're accepting our premise and just haggling over the details," he said, but he acknowledged differences over specific steps.

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