Friday, January 25, 2008

A new phase in EU-Iran diplomacy

by Tomas Valasek

The US caused a small earthquake in the foreign policy circles when it announced, in November 2007, that it believes that Iran is no longer producing nuclear weapons. It was a massive departure from the previous, 2005 national intelligence assessment (NIE), which found Iran guilty of producing the bomb. Anyway one looks at it, the new NIE is certainly good news. It implies that the Middle East is a somewhat safer place than previously believed, and it puts off the possibility of a US military strike on Iran, with its certain destabilising effect on Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Does it also mean that Javier Solana should declare victory and call off EU negotiations to stop the Iranian enrichment programme?

Not so fast. While Iran seems to have suspended weapons production in 2003 (or so Washington now believes), it also continues to enrich uranium on a scale inconsistent with its energy needs – it is building facilities to make more enriched uranium than it needs for its power production. That raises suspicions that Tehran’s true intent still remains to produce fuel for nuclear bombs. And because enrichment is the most difficult part of producing weapons, Iran can afford to stop working on the actual bomb and resume work only when it has made enough fuel. That is why the UN Security Council continues to take a dim view of Iran’s plans, and it is poised to pass a third round of sanctions (Iran is already in violation of two previous resolutions calling on it to halt enrichment).

But the new intelligence assessment is, in a way, a welcome break for the EU’s diplomacy. For all his valiant efforts, Javier Solana, the EU high representative, found progress with Tehran very hard to achieve. Iran is a country with a long history of deceit by and disappointment in foreign powers. This history has bred a mindset of suspicion about outsiders, which is now colouring the EU-Iranian talks on the country’s nuclear programme. Iran is also an incredibly opaque country, with power struggles taking place behind the scenes which the outsiders understand only poorly. This matters – the nuclear programme is a domestic political issue in Iran. Europe would like to understand better and perhaps exploit the fissures between the various actors. But that is proving very difficult.

With a relatively weak deck of cards in his hands, Solana has set out to win the trust of his counterparts in Iran, and to gradually change their views on nuclear bombs. At every meeting Solana points out patiently that Iran stands to lose more than to gain from acquiring nuclear weapons, and that they do not bring prestige and that they may in fact weaken Iran’s security by destabilising the neighbourhood. The philosophy behind Solana’s approach is simple – he wants to win an ally in the Tehran government. Only an insider can turn around Iran’s thinking on nuclear weapons; Solana himself cannot. And in his long-time counterpart, former Iranian negotiator, Ali Larijani, Solana found an attentive ear, if not necessarily an ally.

The limitations of the strategy are obvious. It is not clear that any Iranian negotiator, no matter how well Solana does at winning him over, can turn around the Tehran government’s position on nuclear weapons so long as the top leaders remain deeply suspicious of the West. The second reason for pessimism is that the Iranians of course understand Solana’s game. When he appeared to be making progress with Larijani, and when Larijani appeared to be offering the faintest glimmer of hope for a breakthrough, he was replaced. With that one act, Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, undid much of the progress that the EU had been able to accomplish to date.

The EU did win two significant victories, one in the form of gaining US support for its negotiating efforts, and the other in the form of two (soon to be three) rounds of United Nations Security Council sanctions against Iran. These have come as somewhat of a rude shock to Iran. Only a few years ago, Iran had been able to defeat a Western effort to strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Regime, the NPT, at a review conference in 2005. The Iranians had reasons to believe that because of the unpopularity of the United States, and because of what they believed to be a generally supportive stance from Russia and China, they would be able to avoid UN sanctions. That turned out not be the case; Russia and China have allowed the UN Security Council sanctions to pass. That has shown Iran’s global position to be weaker than Tehran has generally thought, and Solana’s people believe that it made Iran more willing to negotiate.

Despite these partial successes, the odds of a breakthrough on Iran seemed long, at least until the new US intelligence assessment came out late last year. Since then, a slew of events within Iran gave some hope that a change may be in the offing.

It turns out that the best thing to do about Iran may be: nothing. The moment that US pressure on Iran ceased (with the release of the new NIE), President Ahmadinejad started getting into trouble. He had previously covered up years of inept governance by pointing at the US threat and posing as a defender of Iran against the bellicose West. But with the West sheathing its swords for now, the ordinary Iranians’ attention turned to other things – like the 17 per cent inflation rate (up from 12 per cent in 2006), an estimated 16 per cent unemployment rate, or the lack of basic commodities like gas or petrol in what is one of the world’s most resource-rich countries. Ayatollah Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader, has recently taken to openly criticising Ahmadinejad’s economic policies. The president responded the way most populists do, by throwing money at the problem – he increased government spending, mostly on social programmes, by 17 per cent in the 2008 budget. But this is only likely to exacerbate Iran’s economic woes in the long run.

One wonders if the new NIE just might hasten Ahmadinejad’s departure. The president has considerable time left in office, and may yet in theory regain his footing. But Iran will hold legislative elections in March, and, on current trends, the president stands to lose much of his support in the parliament. And with the economy in trouble, even Ahmadinejad will find it difficult to stage a comeback. His downfall would not end the nuclear programme per se, but it would most probably bring back to power people like Ali Larijani, who seem more open to a negotiated settlement. If this optimistic scenario does unfold, it may turn out that the EU’s biggest achievement in Iran to date lied in buying sufficient time until the US eased pressure on Iran, allowing Ahmadinejad’s domestic woes to play themselves out.

Tomas Valasek is director of foreign policy and defence at the Centre for European Reform.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Poland’s bold new foreign policy

by Charles Grant

As far as the rest of Europe was concerned, the worst thing about Poland’s Law and Justice government, led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski (and supported by his twin brother, President Lech Kaczynski), was its foreign policy. The twins’ attitude towards Russia, Germany and – sometimes – the EU was confrontational. The Civic Platform government that took over in October is shifting Poland’s foreign policy. Its ministers often speak to the Germans without reminding them of the war. More controversially, the government is trying to build bridges with Russia. Moscow has lifted its ban on meat exports from Poland, while Warsaw has consulted the Russians about the Bush administration’s plans to deploy missile defence systems in Poland. Prime Minister Donald Tusk is much less enthusiastic than the Kaczynskis about missile defence.

The Civic Platform government is even contemplating a radical shift in policy on gas pipelines. With help from German companies, Gazprom plans to build the Nordstream pipeline, under the Baltic Sea, to Germany. The economics of this project are rather a mystery. It will cost much more than a new land pipeline from Russia to Germany, passing through Poland. Many Poles therefore see Nordstream as a geopolitical threat: it would allow Russia to cut off gas to Poland without blocking supplies to Germany and the rest of Europe. Poles of all political stripes have therefore attacked the planned pipeline as a threat to their national security.

But Angela Merkel’s government, though keen to see warmer relations with Warsaw, continues to back Nordstream, and the odds are that it will be built. The Germans are now trying to persuade the Poles to join the project. The gas from Nordstream will run over German land near the Polish border. A short spur could take the gas into Poland. Some members of the Civic Platform government see the undoubted geopolitical benefits of joining the project: Russia could not squeeze gas supplies to the Poles if they could draw on Nordstream gas.

But two issues are making the government hesitate before abandoning its opposition to Nordstream. One is the economics of the project. If joining Nordstream meant that Poland had to take on a significant share of the huge costs of building the Baltic pipeline, it might not be worth it. However, some Poles believe that they can play on the Germans sense of guilt – they embarked on Nordstream without consulting the Poles – to get them to pay most of the bills. The second issue is Polish politics. If Tusk’s government ‘gives in’ to the Russians by supporting their pipeline, it will be hugely controversial. Jaroslaw Kaczynski would attack the government for failing to stop Nordstream and for pandering to Russia.

Although defeated in last October’s parliamentary election, Law and Justice remains powerful. The party increased its share of the vote from 27 to 32 percent, and only lost because support for its far-right allies, the League of Polish Families and Self-Defence, collapsed. The party’s hold on the presidency means that it can veto legislation promoted by the government.

Law and Justice is already attacking Civic Platform over missile defence. Both Kaczynskis want to get American missiles onto Polish soil as quickly as possible. They believe that participation in US missile defence systems will increase the security bond between Washington and Warsaw, and provide extra insurance against potential Russian aggression.

Tusk and his foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, take a different line. They argue – in my view rightly – that missile defence would enhance American security but worsen Polish security. Poland is not threatened by any putative Iranian missiles. If the US installed missiles on Polish soil, it would stoke up Russian hostility to Poland. The Polish government is therefore telling the US that, in return for taking the missiles, it wants: new air-defence systems, such as Patriot 3, to protect the missile site; agreements from the US to protect the missile base; and American investment in the Polish defence industry. Poland is therefore diverging from the Czech government, which is due to take the radars for the US system, and is much more enthusiastic about missile defence (although public opinion in both Poland and the Czech Republic would rather opt out).

Even if the US says yes to all the Polish demands, which is unlikely, I doubt that Tusk will sign up to anything so long as George W Bush is in office. There is considerable mistrust between some senior people in the Tusk and Bush governments. Poland will probably wait till the next president takes office, see what he or she wants to do, and then take a view. That kind of caution would probably in Poland’s best interests, even though the twins will attack the government for going soft on the Russians.

Charles Grant is director of the Centre for European Reform.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

What, if anything, is Europe to do about Pakistan?

by Melissa Ball and Tomas Valasek

As if to prove that “when it rains, it pours”, Pakistan took yet another step towards chaos with the assassination on December 27th of Benazir Bhutto, the country’s former prime minister. This comes on the heels of months of protests by the country’s lawyers and judges, a mounting Islamist challenge to Pakistan’s secular nature, and the increasing isolation of Pervez Musharraf’s regime. With Bhutto’s untimely death, the country’s best hope for stability – a power-sharing agreement between Bhutto and Musharraf – is no longer possible. And while Pakistan remains relatively calm for now (it could be worse), a violent regime change or even a civil war no longer seem implausible.

Pakistan matters enormously. It borders the rising powers of India and China as well as two of the world’s worst trouble spots, Afghanistan and Iran. A failed Pakistan is certain to destabilize Afghanistan, and may well derail India’s peaceful development (if the violence in the contested region of Kashmir worsens). Equally importantly for Europe, Pakistan’s northwestern region serves as training and recruiting ground for al-Qaeda terrorists. Pakistan-trained terrorists have already struck in the UK but Germans, too, were found to be training in Pakistan’s terrorist camps, and the Taliban also claims to have French and other nationalities in its ranks. Add to this a sizeable stash of nuclear weapons, and the prospect of Pakistan disintegrating into its ethnic constituencies becomes scary indeed.

Pakistan may be thousands of miles away from Europe but its collapse would certainly reverberate here as well. Europe must think hard about what can be done to help. The Europeans’ biggest stake in Pakistan is via their involvement in Afghanistan. Troops from 21 European countries there are having a terrible time fighting the Taliban, who draw support from the tribes in Pakistan’s lawless northwestern region. It is becoming clear that Afghanistan cannot be secured unless Pakistan’s tribal areas are brought under some semblance of central control. If Pakistan collapses, that task will become impossible, and the chance for a successful Afghan state may slip away.

NATO commands the Afghanistan operation, and until recently, it ran a busy military-to-military dialogue with Pakistan. That conversation has largely stopped for now, NATO officials say, until Pakistan’s internal situation becomes more stable. But when and if it resumes, European countries involved in NATO’s Afghanistan mission should use the forum to press Pakistan for more co-operation on the fight against the Taliban. They should also explore whether the scope of the debates can be expanded to include Pakistan’s domestic situation.

But beyond this forum Europe’s leverage over Pakistan is limited. The reality is that events in Pakistan have a bigger impact on Europe than the European Union (EU) exerts on Pakistan. Asian countries by and large view the EU as a collection of nation-states rather than a whole. While on trade issues they speak to the EU, on foreign policy national capitals matter far more than the union. London almost certainly has a bigger say in Pakistan than Brussels.

That would be fine in principle except that member-states find it difficult to have a meaningful influence alone. In Pakistan, even the United States tried and failed to broker a Musharraf-Bhutto alliance. Islamabad has become introverted and closed.

The question then becomes how to use the EU’s limited influence, and, whether it is possible to expand it. On the first count, Europe’s main goal should be to ensure that the Pakistani elections next month are fair, free and timely. Europe has offered to send an election monitoring mission to assist with the forthcoming elections on February 18th (moved from January 8th). This includes 11 election experts and fifty long-term observers. Europe should make it clear to Musharraf that he must not delay the elections any longer for his own political gain, as Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (which stands to benefit the most from the sympathy factor) fears. Musharraf’s decreasing credibility in conjunction with rigged elections would snuff out any hope of return to normality in the near to medium term.

Europe should also use its leverage over the US to lean on Washington to insist on fully democratic elections. For too long, Musharraf, who has been a willing aide in Washington’s fight against terrorism, enjoyed America’s nearly total support, despite having previously overthrown a civilian government. That attitude has begun to change lately – the US was behind the push for a Bhutto-Musharraf alliance, and US diplomats have been quietly talking to some of the Islamists opposition parties, too. Europe should encourage Washington to fully end their dependency on Musharraf, and to press for democratic elections.

Beyond these measures there seem precious few options for the EU to act, certainly in the short run. Since the September 11th attacks the EU has consciously tried to strengthen its role in the country. It gave Pakistani goods preferential access to European markets. In 2005 the EU provided tens of millions of euros to help Pakistan deal with the aftermath of a massive earthquake. Yet none of this seems to have raised Europe’s profile much. Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign policy representative is said to be speaking to Musharraf often but to little effect. But for now, Europe’s best hope is to use its limited leverage to press for democracy, and to hope for Musharraf to become more open to outside influence. A visit to Brussels would be a strong signal of interest.

In the long run, the EU could and should use its know-how in institution-building to help Pakistan overcome its ethnic divisions. As things stand, Pakistan’s political parties represent regional and ethnic interests rather than ideas. And while Bhutto, who hailed from the southern Sindh province, has gained nation-wide appeal and always viewed herself as Pakistani first, the fear is that her successors will put Sindhi interests before Pakistan. In that case, even if the elections are free and fair, the late Bhutto’s party victory may exacerbate ethnic tensions and fail to produce a stable government (not unlike in Iraq, where elections manifestly failed to heal the ethnic divide between the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds).

The EU member-states have considerable know-how in building modern political parties. Those skills have already helped transform the politics of Central and Eastern Europe. The EU member-states should brainstorm about whether a similar formula could be applied to Pakistan. The strife-ridden country badly needs to transcend the politics of ethnicity. If the EU can help, it would make a major contribution to the stability of Pakistan – and perhaps win for itself a greater role in Pakistan’s domestic politics.

Melissa Ball is an associate at SEI and Tomas Valasek is director of foreign policy and defence at the Centre for European Reform.