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What to do about Iran?

George Bush meets two counterparts from Europe and discusses how to put a squeeze on Iran.

In 2006, George Bush famously gave Angela Merkel, the German chancellor a brief, impromptu neck-rub at a summit. At the weekend, though there was no massage, the two leaders discussed a topic that has been giving lots of world leaders tension headaches: the ongoing standoff over Iran’s nuclear program. The two leaders stood rhetorically side-by-side: Merkel said “we agreed we want to resolve, and also can resolve, diplomatically the problem of Iran's nuclear program.” The German-American relationship appears to have changed 180 degrees since Bush’s fury at Gerhard Schröder, Merkel’s predecessor, over the Iraq war.

Earlier in the week, Bush had also met with Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s president. This visit, too, seemed both productive and extraordinarily friendly for a meeting of French and American leaders. Sarkozy was rapturously received by Congress. Bush even addressed his counterpart in French, welcoming him to the “Maison Blanche”, while Fox News, a conservative television station that has bashed France in recent years, ran Sarkozy’s picture over the caption “Ooh la la”. But if America and “old Europe” are now getting along better in public, not all is sweetness behind the scenes, particularly over what to do about Iran. Bush wants to turn the screws relentlessly, and has refused to rule out military strikes—although the Pentagon poured cold water on the idea this weekend, telling the Financial Times that it is not preparing a pre-emptive attack and that a strike is not in the offing.

Sarkozy and his foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, have taken a surprisingly tough line as well, hinting at military action should Iran continue to refuse to stop enriching uranium. (Iran’s president recently announced another milestone, saying 3,000 centrifuges are now enriching successfully.) But Merkel’s government has been more wary about turning up the pressure. The Europeans still have much economic leverage with Iran if they choose to use it, and thus more lose if there are sanctions or conflict — the European Union is Iran’s biggest trading partner, with Germany making up a hefty share. It, along with other European countries, has cut down on export credits to Iran. But big European companies like Siemens (a German-based engineering firm) and Total (a French oil one) do business with Iran, although they may decide to hold back from future contracts. European leaders are now discouraging their companies from making further investments there.

But simple exhortation may not be enough. At her meeting with Bush, Merkel was vague, saying mildly that “Germany needs to look somewhat closer at the existing business ties with Iran.” Britain and France want new EU sanctions on Iran that would bind the whole 27-member block. But joint EU foreign policy requires unanimity, and a block of countries including Germany, Spain and Austria oppose EU sanctions that are not based on a new resolution from the UN. Russia’s and China’s continuing refusal to back new sanctions could thus block European sanctions too, to the irritation of those who are keen to put pressure on Iran quickly. An alternative route may become more likely with America and individual allies proceeding in a coalition of the willing.

Add to this the fact that America’s warmest European relationship has cooled somewhat. Gordon Brown, who took over from Tony Blair this year, has proclaimed (like every modern British prime minister) his country’s place alongside America. But that place will not be Iraq, at least, as he hurries to withdraw troops. And Brown, not least because British voters would not be keen, does not show anything like the personal friendship with Bush that Blair did. (The Economist)