Dr Charles Tannock

Member of the European Parliament for London

MEPs want sanctions on Iran, but the EU wants to wait for UN

New Europe - 31 January 2010

Even as Members of the European Parliament have set the stage for a volatile showdown over demands for stronger sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program and crackdown on dissidents, European Union foreign ministers backed away from a confrontation and said it’s up to the United Nations Security Council to make the call.

Some MEPs, ahead of a session in February over Iran, attacked that country’s record of going after government opponents and said they fear Tehran is pursuing a nuclear bomb and not peaceful use of nuclear energy, the same stance taken by the United States and Israel. But EU foreign ministers, echoing the bloc’s preferred diplomatic stance of “soft power” diplomacy and negotiations, said they don’t want to add more sanctions to those they had already approved, fearing it would make a settlement more difficult and doubting further punishment would work.

“We need to see what comes out of the Security Council discussions and the role the members play and then return to the subject,” the bloc’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton told journalists in Brussels, after meeting with EU foreign ministers.

Sweden’s Carl Bildt seemed to agree, as he spoke to the press before the talks with his counterparts. “The sanction instrument is a very blunt one, so it should be used with extreme care,” he stated. “Our aim is to get the Iranians to the negotiating table and have a political solution, and if there are any ... sanctions which can reinforce that possibility, I’m ready to look at them,” Bildt added.

For the Parliament’s largest bloc, the Center-Right European People’s Party MEP José Ignacio Salafranca of Spain said that Iran “was still producing enriched uranium,” and he asked how long Europe “could keep patience with such behavior?” and whether there should now be extra punitive measures against the Iranian regime.

Socialist MEP Roberto Gualtieri of Italy, speaking for the second largest group, said that he believed Tehran had the right to a peaceful civilian nuclear program but that enriching uranium, a process that could lead to building a nuclear weapon, demanded a response from the international community and that he wanted stronger sanctions.

British MEP Charles Tannock, of the European Conservatives and Reformists group, launched a scathing attacking on what he called “The ruthless nuclear ambitions of (Iranian President Mahmoud) Ahmedinejad.” He was supported by Bas Belder of the Netherlands and European Freedom and Democracy bloc who warned: “Iran’s nuclear program poses very serious security threats and the international community should act accordingly,” or risk political and economic retaliation.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned Iran that it risked increased sanctions if it does not soon cooperate with investigations into a suspected nuclear weapons program. “Time is running out,” said Merkel, speaking at an annual reception for German diplomats. She warned that further sanctions are on the table failing Iranian cooperation. “It would be a tragedy for the people of Iran if it came to that.” Germany is one of the main countries negotiating with Iran to find a way to get it to give up its nuclear processing capabilities, which Iran claims are for civilian energy purposes, but which some Western analysts fear are for a nuclear program.

The EU has targeted Iran with a series of sanctions since the country stopped cooperating with the UN’s nuclear watchdog. They range from asset freezes on banks and key figures linked to the nuclear program, to embargoes on exports of arms and equipment.

The revelation at the end of 2009 that Iran had built a further nuclear enrichment facility near Qom led to calls for further restrictive measures. But in her press conference, Ashton wouldn’t even use the word “sanctions,” retreating instead to saying: “There will be a discussion about ‘what else?’, ‘what next?’. I won’t preempt that discussion, suffice to say that it’s time to have that discussion and then (EU ministers) will consider the results,” she argued.

Estonia’s Urmas Paet insisted the bloc should not move on the matter without the support of the world’s greatest powers. “With Iran, (sanctions) will work out only if all the UN Security Council permanent members agree. ... The EU is ready to do it, but to get really functioning sanctions, we need all big players in the world to be united behind this decision,” he stressed.

The debate came almost two months after EU leaders called on Iran to shut down its controversial uranium-enrichment program, which, like all similar demands from the EU, have been ignored by Iran without penalty, prompting some critics to say the threats are hollow.

Still, Ashton lamented Tehran’s “reluctance” to engage with the international community, its “insufficient cooperation” with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and recalled “it did not respond favorably” to the compromise proposal of having the enriched fuel it needs for its supposedly civilian nuclear program supplied by Russia.