A good day for good cop diplomacy

The UN Security Council has approved new sanctions on Iran. Europe’s good cop diplomacy contributed to this success, and will play an important role in holding the new agreement together.

You’ve seen this story in a thousand cop shows. The aged policeman, a week from retirement, takes one last case with an ambitious young partner. They bicker. They learn to work together. They face down a bad guy at dawn. The old guy gets to go home…

Something like that happened at the United Nations yesterday, with the Security Council approving a substantial new set of sanctions on Iran. Nobody thinks these sanctions are perfect. But they are a real step towards containing the Iranian challenge multilaterally. 

Throughout the Bush era, the European Union – and especially the “E3” of Britain, France and Germany, along with former EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana – led the fight to deal with Iran’s nuclear program through the UN. Some Republicans would have rather used force against Tehran, although the President was always said to be cautious. 

Nonetheless, the fact that the West continued to try to contain Iran via the UN was one of the most important signs of the EU’s relevance to global stability in the last decade.

Had the Europeans not acted as a brake on the “Bomb Iran” faction in the U.S., the Middle East might be in a very ugly state today. Professional war-gamers warn Tehran could respond to American air-strikes with a mix of attacks on Gulf countries, terrorism in Europe, and violence against Western troops in Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon.

No wonder that Javier Solana’s role as the West’s envoy to Iran won him many fans among Democrats and moderate Republicans. His part inpreventing a meltdown was arguably a greater contribution to security than all the EU’s peace operations combined.

The EU’s diplomacy could be erratic. In 2005, it offered Iran “cooperation in development of new tourist resorts” for nuclear concessions. It’s hard to see President Ahmadinejad swapping WMD for of sun loungers. But diplomacy is a funny business.

In 2007-8, the Bush administration moved closer to the EU’s position on Iran – that worried some Europeans,who thought their good cop act only made sense if the U.S. kept up the menace. The Obama administration has doggedly followed the UN route.

It got its reward yesterday. Crucially, China and Russia voted in favor of sanctions, although Brazil and Turkey (who have been trying to engage with Tehran) did not do so.

In the short-term, this is primarily a U.S. success. Washington has largely replaced the EU in diplomacy around Iran – a switch made clear when President Obama announced new intelligence on Iranian activities at September’s G20 summit in Pittsburgh.

Other players have been involved too. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States have been sending clear signals to Beijing that it should get tough with Iran or risk damaging their bilateral relations – a powerful warning, given China’s reliance on Gulf energy supplies.

Russia, the inveterate rogue cop in this story (the type normally played by Harvey Keitel) has also come good, at least for now. Whether thanks to U.S. engagement or because of concerns over its economy, Moscow has turned against Iran, tipping the scales at the UN. 

At times, European leaders have been irritated by their reduced profile on the issue. Last month, The Economist reported that President Sarkozy hopes to use France’s presidency of the G20 in 2011 to reassert a leadership role on Iran – among a small host of priorities. 

Yet EU leaders should, on balance, be satisfied with the Security Council decision. Even if this was not a “European victory”, it was built on years of painful European diplomacy.

So, like Hollywood cops approaching retirement, the Europeans should graciously tip their hats to their assertive young partners for a job well done. But like their cinematic counterparts, they should know that they won’t really get to retire: there will be a sequel.

Like a lot of sequels, it may be less enjoyable that the original. Iran will not, almost all experts agree, bow to this new round of sanctions. The West will need to keep up the pressure – while simultaneously restraining those in Israel who want a military solution. Most immediately, the EU is expected to follow up on the UN with detailed sanctions.

In retrospect, this week’s sanctions may look like a delay on the way to eventual military action. When that comes, European warplanes and warships may not play a major role. 

But EU diplomats and leaders will have a part to play holding together as much of the coalition that got behind this sanctions resolution as possible. That doesn’t make them the stars of the movie. But the Academy hands out Oscars for Best Supporting Actor too.    

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Associate Senior Policy Fellow

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