Prodding the glacier

The EU continues to "engage" Iran using charm, suasion and incentives.

Ahmadinejad is so cool  (photo credit: AP [file])
Ahmadinejad is so cool
(photo credit: AP [file])
The glacial pace at which Europe has been working to get Iran to end its enrichment of uranium and give up its nuclear weapons program is slowly picking up. Britain and Europe are expected to freeze the assets of Bank Melli, the Islamic Republic's main financial conduit to the world and its channel for cash transfers to Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The EU is also weighing sanctions against companies that invest in Iran's energy industry. For its part, Iran has reportedly begun shifting cash out of European banks - $75 billion so far. Melli is switching its reserves into non-dollar currencies; and Iran is calling on other revenue-rich oil states to follow suit. Separately, Islamist Web sites aligned with al-Qaida have been urging their supporters to dump dollars. Meanwhile, the EU continues to "engage" Iran using charm, suasion and incentives. Its foreign policy czar, Javier Solana, has just been to Teheran offering economic assistance and civilian nuclear knowhow in exchange for a halt to uranium enrichment. Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani pledged to "carefully study" the EU offer, though other government spokespeople have reportedly already rejected it. In Iran, there are no "moderates" on the nuclear issue, but there are differences over how best to stonewall. If Solana wants to cut to the chase and receive straight answers to his proposals, he might try meeting directly with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei or Revolutionary Guard boss Mohammad Ali Jafari. European apologists for Teheran are already saying Iran can't possibly accept the latest EU offer because Washington didn't formally sign on to it (though administration officials have endorsed EU diplomacy) and Washington hasn't publicly abandoned hopes for regime change. These apologists further claim that when the mullahs were (supposedly) not enriching uranium, Washington maintained sanctions nevertheless. And they argue that a more amenable president may replace Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in August 2009. EUROPE IS Iran's main import and export trading partner. According to EU data, in 2006, EU imports totaled more than €14.12 billion, while the value of EU exports (with Germany, France and Italy leading the way) amounted to more than €11.19 billion. Iran is Europe's fifth-biggest oil supplier. This means that the EU could live without Iran, though Iran would have a hard time managing without Europe. Europe is thus still instrumental in keeping Teheran's economy afloat, yet it is doing precious little to explicitly isolate Iran. Regular international flights to the Islamic Republic still take off from most major European airports, and European countries maintain active embassies in Teheran. IT'S LONG been suspected that the father of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program, A.Q. Khan, sold bomb-making material to Iran. And this week brought revelations of computer blueprints being de-encrypted - which suggests Khan may also have peddled technology for building small, easily transportable nuclear weapons. We do not know if he sold the Iranians a design for a bomb small enough to be fitted atop one of their ballistic missiles; we do know that they have delivery vehicles able to reach Israel - and beyond - and are openly, feverishly enriching uranium. A variation on Rudyard Kipling's "If" comes to mind: If Europe can keep its head when the rest of us are losing ours, maybe it doesn't understand the seriousness of the situation. EVEN THE US, with the best of intentions, has not found it easy to impose a comprehensive sanctions regime. Which is why we applaud US Senator Max Baucus for his efforts to plug existing loopholes in American law. For instance, while the export of US goods to Iran is already forbidden, there is a long list of exceptions, including parts for civilian airliners. It's still legal to import Persian carpets, caviar, nuts and dried fruit; "independent" subsidiaries of US corporations can still invest in Iran. Moreover, even though Moscow assists Iran's nuclear program, it remains legal to sell Russia nuclear equipment. Finally, Baucus's bill would deduct US contributions to the World Bank proportionate to the funds the bank provides for programs defined as humanitarian in Iran. After all, money is fungible. Were this the summer of 2002, when Iranian dissidents first revealed the existence of the Natanz uranium enrichment facility and the heavy-water plant in Arak, we might be more upbeat about the pace of European sanctions. Six years on, we are anything but.