The German bottleneck

Merkel must have the courage to say to her public: Tighter sanctions are the only way to avert war.

angela merkel 88 (photo credit: )
angela merkel 88
(photo credit: )
Iran's announcement that it has reached the critical threshold of 3,000 operational uranium-enriching centrifuges was met with a combination of complacency, denial and skepticism. Indeed, the regime has good reason to exaggerate, given that its strategy is to convince the world that it is too late stop it from building a nuclear bomb. That said, there can be little doubt as to the direction of events. If Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's claim is not true today, then it will be in a short time. As former defense minister Shaul Mofaz put it this week, "Iran's nuclear program is proceeding like an express train. The diplomatic efforts to thwart Iran are like a slow train. If we cannot derail the Iranian train from the tracks, we are on the verge of a nuclear era that will totally alter the regional reality." Based on this undeniable analysis, Mofaz says that 2008 will be the critical year for stopping Iran. In a similar vein, Military Intelligence chief Brig.-Gen. Yossi Baidatz says that "assuming it faces no difficulties, the worst case scenario is that Iran obtains nuclear arms by 2009." As Iran races and the West plods, the military option naturally looms ever larger. Defense Minister Ehud Barak openly said this week that Israel needs to "study operational aspects" of a military strike against Iran. Mofaz is right. The sanctions train is not moving fast enough to overtake and block Iran's nuclear train. At the same time, despite US President George W. Bush's increasing insistence that Iran must be stopped, there are no external signs that he is trying, let alone succeeding, to overturn barely concealed Pentagon and State Department opposition to such a move. This leaves Israel. As the Times of London reported this week, "The Pentagon is reluctant to take military action against Iran, but officials say that Israel is a 'different matter.'" As was the case with Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981, and with the mysterious operation against a Syrian facility this September, the world seems content to let Israel do its dirty work, while criticizing us for it. However "normal" such thinking has become, it is no way to run a railroad. Indeed, relying on Israel to take military action is the worst possible scenario short of allowing the world's foremost terrorist regime to go nuclear. Iran is a global threat that must be dealt with globally. The best way to do so remains to impose draconian and comprehensive sanctions, including a ban on refined oil exports to the Islamic Republic. There is no excuse for the failure of the sanctions track, regardless of the obstructionism of China and Russia. Iran imports 40 percent of its refined oil, mostly from two companies, one Dutch (Vitol) and one Indian (Reliance). The Dutch company alone accounts for 60% of Iran's refined oil imports, which means that an EU ban on exports to Iran would be a serious blow to the regime. It is critical to remember that while a full 40% of Iran's foreign trade is with the EU, only 1% of the EU's foreign trade is with Iran. France, Britain and Germany have all somewhat reduced the issuing of new export credits, but Europe is still far from reaching a total ban on export credits, let alone on unsubsidized trade. Italy, Austria, Spain, Switzerland and Germany are all still issuing substantial amounts of export credits to encourage business with Iran. At that same time, just a few weeks ago, a key international financial organization, FATF (the Financial Action Task Force), issued a warning against doing business with Iranian banks. New US sanctions against the Iranian Revolutionary Guards are kicking in, with more on the way. This financial pressure has led a former top Iranian negotiator, Hassan Rouhani, to complain that Iran is "increasingly under threat" and that the economic situation is deteriorating despite increasing oil prices. In this context, Germany has become a key bottleneck in the sanctions campaign. While France and Britain are pressing for tighter EU sanctions, Germany is hiding behind the UN, where the Chinese and Russian veto prevails. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who will meet with Bush in Crawford, Texas, in the coming days, is under domestic pressure not to enter into a campaign perceived in Europe as leading to war. She must now have the courage to say to her public and the more than 100 major German companies still trading with Iran: Tighter sanctions are the only way to prevent war and the necessity of military action.