Europe is waiting to see how Obama plays Iran
PARIS: Iran could now credibly claim to have produced the nuclear elements necessary to make a single atom bomb. It's a new and accelerating situation that's giving life to apprehension in Europe about how Barack Obama will handle trying to stop the Iranian drive.
The fact: several nuclear experts in the United States reported last week, based on information from the International Atomic Energy Agency, that Iran has enough low-enriched uranium to make a weapon.
The reservations: doing so would require additional purification and a warhead design. Iran would also have to behave aggressively, expelling the agency's in-country inspectors who could track the existence of a weapons application. At the same time, the experts have differing notions on the point in time when military implications would kick in.
But the circumstances, including Iran's testing of a longer range missile, intensify pressure on Obama to quickly come up with a strategy for dealing with what he and the big European allies - France, Britain and Germany - have described as the "inadmissible" perspective of mullahs with nukes.
What worries the Europeans, but particularly the French, who hold the European Union's rotating presidency until Jan. 1, is what Obama intends to do once he is in the White House.
Wary of challenging Obama's current reservoir of international prestige and support, the European leadership's concerns on Iran are only half-articulated.
But they go to fears of being cut out of the process in the direct U.S.-Iran talks Obama has promised and losing a means to bring pressure against eventual military action.
What do Obama's campaign pledges about talking to Iran "directly" and "without preconditions" mean now? And how influential are U.S. experts who argue he should run around Russia's chokehold on the UN Security Council's initiatives and sanctions by starting head-on, "all options on the table" negotiations with the mullahs?
The Europeans, who talk to the Iranians directly and participate in the Council's deliberations concerning Tehran, are not sure.
Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister, hoping that the Obama team might be listening, brought some of the European concerns to Washington two weeks ago for a speech at the Brookings Institution. He said this of American-Iranian negotiations:
"Everything depends on how and when this" American "card is played. Washington can help to get out of the current impasse or ruin the dual-track approach."
I asked Thérèse Delpech, France's most authoritative voice on nuclear proliferation, for an exegesis. Her view is that "Kouchner came as close as he could to saying that France doesn't want bilateral negotiations between the U.S. and Iran. If Obama chooses the bilateral route, the Iranians will play four cards off one another simultaneously - Russia, China, Europe and America. This will give them enormous leeway."
The only successful method she saw for making Iran back off was "separating the Iranian leadership." Iranian elections in June and the continuing fall in world oil prices could play in this direction.
The French also want to get the Americans involved early this summer in a Russian-inspired conference to discuss new security architecture for Europe.
If there's wide acknowledgment that this is a Russian gambit to hobble NATO, there are Europeans who see it as an occasion to talk about deployment of the planned American missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, and the potential alliance membership of Georgia and Ukraine - both issues to become parts of a bargain that could engage Russian assistance on Iran.
All in all, it's asking a lot of Obama: to accept Security Council constrictions on the American approach to Iran, to use allies as trade bait, and sitting still as the French argue that Vladimir Putin's real position isn't so far away from joining the West's. That means swallowing his official stance - Russia sees nothing to contradict the mullahs' "peaceful intentions" - which continues to whack credibility on the head.
The guess here is that what's shaping up as Obama's Washington, with Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state, and the retired Marine Corps General James Jones as a possible national security adviser to Obama, will not regard this upbeat projection of helpfulness with much confidence.
As for tying American prerogatives in knots, Obama himself, in his book "The Audacity of Hope," says the Security Council cannot serve as the be-all and end-all of American decision-making in times of crisis.
In the particular case of bilateral talks with Iran, Obama would go into them carrying his campaign pledge, "We'll never take the military option off the table." To make that threat believable for the Iranians, an America stuck with the label Awaiting Approval by the UN would be largely killing its ultimate element of dissuasion.
Bruno Tertrais, an analyst at the Foundation for Strategic Research here with a pretty good record on gauging the success of Iran's nuclear program - a year ago, when the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate claimed the Iranians had stopped working on a weapon, he insisted that Tehran was getting much closer to building a bomb - thinks some of the Europeans' short-term concerns about Obama will be resolved.
As much as he feels "there's really nothing much to expect from the Russians," Tertrais also considers "the reasonableness and experience of the people around Obama" would result in a formula to keep the European allies in a new negotiating equation.
All the same, he said, one day soon an official will enter the Oval Office to tell Obama, "Mr. President, Iran must now be considered a virtual nuclear power."
History at this point is not reassuring.
"No country has ever arrived at the Iranians' current level of production and didn't build a bomb," Tertrais said. "I'm pessimistic about our capacity to make them bend."