Engagement and multilateralism have become mantra for European diplomats and policymakers. There is seldom a problem, they believe, that cannot be solved by dialogue. On April 26, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine and five former European foreign ministers signed a letter decrying the possibility of military force against Iran and instead arguing for direct negotiation. “Every European member of our group has met with influential Iranian officials during the past few months and found a widespread interest among them in conducting a broad discussion with the United States on security issues,” they wrote.
Resident Scholar Michael Rubin
European engagement began in earnest in 1992 as a German initiative. Berlin argued that the Islamic Republic would moderate in response to trade and dialogue. But theory did not conform to reality. Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani--the same pragmatist upon whom European leaders now place hope--personally ordered assassinations in Vienna and Berlin. Long before the Iraq-born antagonism between Washington and Brussels, Rafsanjani redoubled Iranian efforts to develop a covert nuclear program.
Still, European leaders sought to engage Tehran. Former EU External Affairs Commissioner Chris Patten argued, “There is absolutely no dispute on the importance of opening [trade] negotiations with Iran.” European officials soon augmented the failed German initiative with additional trade. In 2000, bilateral trade between Europe and the Islamic Republic exceeded $12 billion. Over the next five years, European Union trade with Iran nearly tripled. Rather than bolster Iranian reformers, EU hard currency killed them. During the tenure of reformist president Muhammad Khatami, government-equipped vigilantes attacked student dormitories. Persecution of Jews, Christians, and Baha’is increased. Instances of capital punishment doubled. On June 8, 2002, three days after Islamic Jihad killed 17 on a public bus in Israel, the Iranian government bolstered its payments to the group by 70 percent. Rather than bolster human rights, European money convinced Iranian leaders they could get away with murder.
The current nuclear crisis is very much the product of these failed European policies. Rather than use its hard currency to invest in schools, hospitals, and civil society, the Iranian leadership has invested heavily in its weapons program. In March 2001, Khatami traveled to Moscow to sign a $7 billion arms and nuclear reactor deal, even while state workers marched for unpaid wages. Iranian biological weapons labs now stock Swiss, German, Italian, and Spanish lab equipment. European officials stay silent as Tehran budgets perhaps $200 million per year for Lebanese Hizbullah, even as that group remains in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1559. Throughout this period, Iranian officials misled or outright lied to their European counterparts and international inspectors. Their actions should have indicated to European leaders the Iranian leadership’s true intentions.
Multilateralism sounds good in theory, but it is no substitute for reality. Not all states are sincere. Both politicians and international organizations can be venal. Hundreds of thousands of Rwandans died as the United Nations--and its then-peacekeeping director, Kofi Annan--stood aside. The UN’s Oil-for-Food program diverted billions from baby food for Iraqi children to luxury cars for UN officials and their contractors. Billions in European aid to the Palestinians have been wasted, not because of Israeli actions, but rather because of Palestinian corruption. No European auditor has yet sought to recover the hundreds of millions of dollars in bank accounts and property held by Yasir Arafat’s Paris-based wife, Suha.
For engagement to be effective, the substance of diplomatic grievance must be rectified. Incentives must change behavior, not encourage intransigence. After all, if every impasse is met with additional aid, why not provoke an endless cascade of crises? Even after the Iranian regime has won U.S. recognition and billions in aid and investment, it has not abandoned its nuclear weapons program. Multilateralism should not become synonymous with mere bribery. Tehran should not be rewarded for its failure to ratify the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty’s Additional Protocol. Nor should the onus of Tehran’s non-compliance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty’s Safeguard’s agreement be on European or American taxpayers, any more than feeding the North Korean army should in the face of Pyongyang’s demands for additional aid.
Diplomacy must be responsible. It should not create precedents which encourage states to flout treaties for financial gain or exemptions from both European and American democratization and human rights concerns. It should be about more than opening opportunities for European and American businessmen. The most recent European and American initiative to Iran may be celebrated among diplomats in Brussels, Berlin, and Vienna, but it risks becoming a textbook model for the triumph of short-term diplomacy over long-term results.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at AEI.