BERLIN - Europe's initiative to prevent a military confrontation between the United States and Iran represents a new coming of age in world affairs for a Europe often described as an economic giant but a geo-political dwarf. Nowhere is this more true than in Germany.
The European initiative, led by Germany, France, and Britain, would give Iran major economic benefits in exchange for the Iranians giving up their aspirations to become a nuclear power. Specifically, Tehran would get membership in the World Trade Organization, trade deals, security guarantees, and nuclear fuel for peaceful uses such as nuclear power generation.
A preliminary agreement in mid-November produced an Iranian commitment to suspend work on uranium enrichment, but a follow-up agreement is still to be negotiated, and nobody here expects a final deal until after the Iranian presidential election next year, since none of the candidates can afford politically to appear weak.
Any deal would need US approval, and Washington's view of the European initiative thus far has ranged from skeptical to contemptuous. The Bush administration believes, with good reason, that the Iranians have been lying about their nuclear program. Officials consider the Europeans naive. The more hawkish officials in the administration want "regime change" or a "surgical strike" against Iranian nuclear facilities.
Both options, however, will be far more difficult than in Iraq, since Iranian nuclear facilities are both dispersed and hardened, and since President Bush has just about run out of US ground troops in the Iraq occupation.
German officials point out that their Iran initiative is a breakthrough, since for the first time in recent memory the leading European powers are both united and proactive, as well as independent from Washington, on a major issue that threatens the peace.
Yet everyone I spoke with here took pains to point out that this initiative is not seen as an effort to have Europe outflank the United States, and there is sober concern about Iran playing off the United States against Europe. "In the end, this will be successful only if the United States goes along," said one senior Iran expert.
Another official told me, "There is no popular support here or anywhere in Europe, for Europe to be a counterweight to the United States." Rather, German officials see their role as demonstrating that there are diplomatic alternatives to a repeat of US Iraq policy in Iran.
Officials here are also sensitive to the American charge that European leaders are naive about what can be negotiated with Iran. "We accept that the Iranians are likely to try to cheat," a member of parliament close to the government told me." He added, "Even so, a agreement would buy time and would put in place a monitoring system that would make it less likely that Iran would cheat."
If the agreement does break down, this official adds, then Europe would have no choice but to join the United States in economic sanctions against Iran, but would try to discourage the Bush administration from pursuing a military option or seeking Security Council action that the Russians and Chinese would likely oppose.
American diplomats have long argued that nothing major happened on the world stage unless the United States orchestrated it. Even in the Balkan crisis of the mid-1990s, it took American leadership to deal with war and genocide right in Europe's backyard.
The only two notable exceptions were Chancellor Willy Brandt's efforts more than two decades ago to engage the Soviet Union and East Germany and British and French diplomatic efforts that helped produce the deal to trade an end for Libyan terrorism for an end to economic and diplomatic sanctions. Washington at first reacted to both of these initiatives with great unease.
European involvement in world affairs beyond continental borders has been welcomed by Washington only when Europe served as a junior partner to American designs -- as most of Europe refused to do in Iraq.
Against this background, what's noteworthy about the Iran initiative is that it represents an effort both to mend fences with Washington and to demonstrate that Europe can play a more proactive role that serves a common US-European purpose, in this case lowering tensions in the Middle East.
The Iraq war is monumentally unpopular here. Chancellor Schroeder has no practical choice but to oppose the Bush administration's Iraq policy and he gained politically by refusing to support the US invasion. But there is deep unease in the German government at the prospect of a continuing US-German breach.
For now, the Bush administration is neither encouraging nor blocking Europe's efforts with Iran. This is not quite a deliberate good cop/bad cop routine, though European leaders would be quite happy with that outcome.
Given the sheer unreality of US policy in the Middle East, one can only welcome this brand of European activism in world affairs -- and hope that the Bush administration, despite its conceit that America is the world's only superpower, grasps the benefits.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.
© 2004 The Boston Globe