As it occupies front-pages and spills rivers of ink across the world, the "Iran crisis" offers little hope for resolution. It remains a struggle of delicate posturing and brazen rhetoric, a cold diplomatic war, shrouded in suspicion and assumption. The "E3" countries - the UK, France and Germany - have sought to steer a course in between Tehran and Washington, but recent events and ongoing diplomatic stagnation suggest that Europe has lost the plot.
Kouchner's war talk
Much has been made this week of the unflinching call to arms of France's new foreign minister. Bernard Kouchner insisted in a weekend interview that, in confronting Iran, "we have to prepare for the worst, and the worst is war."
The remark brought a swift rebuke from Tehran, which likened Nicolas Sarkozy's Champs Élysée to the White House. Mohammed El-Baradei, chief of the International Atomic Energy Association and one of the key figures in negotiations, likewise squashed talk of war. "There are rules on how to use force," he told journalists in Vienna, "and I would hope that everybody would have gotten the lesson after the Iraq situation, where 700,000 innocent civilians have lost their lives on the suspicion that a country has nuclear weapons. I do not believe at this stage that we are facing a clear and present danger that requires we go beyond diplomacy."
Kouchner has since distanced himself from talk of war, reaffirming his commitment to the "French position": "negotiate, negotiate, negotiate, and work with our European friends on credible sanctions." Yet, it is difficult to not hear the hardening tone of French foreign policy. Founder of Médecins Sans Frontières and a bleeding-heart humanitarian interventionist, Kouchner supported the 2003 Iraq war - one of the few French socialists to do so. Though he is often described as a "maverick leftist" in Sarkozy's rightist cabinet, Kouchner - and his occasionally loose tongue - should be taken at face value as a measure of France's changing direction. Paris seeks to mend fences with Washington and reprise its role on that sizable portion of the global stage choreographed by American imperatives.
The "middle ground"
But while France's current foreign policy-makers may be cut from a different cloth than their Chirac-era predecessors, taking a tougher line - including calling for further sanctions on Iran - will do little to jump-start Europe's stalled negotiations with Tehran. Such a failure would amount to not only a political setback for Europe, but a moral defeat.
In committing to the diplomatic route with Iran, E3 had staked out the middle ground between Iran's shadowy intransigence and the Bush administration's brawn. Such a position reflected the general thrust of the bulk of European foreign policy towards west Asia in recent years; Europe seeks to offer the "alternative" to the more reckless American course, be it in pushing for a more even resolution to the Palestine-Israeli crisis, in supporting grassroots democracy and civil society, or in choosing multilateralism and international law over unilateral action (the UK being one of the obvious exceptions here). As the major European countries struggle to reposition themselves in a world of rapidly changing configurations of power, policies that are at once principled and substantive will go some way to carving a niche for Europe in the 21st century.
Yet, infuriatingly for many E3 diplomats, the "middle ground" in the ongoing nuclear dispute seems to be slipping from their grasp. Recent developments see Iran ignoring E3's efforts and turning directly to the IAEA. For this snub, western European capitals and Washington glare accusingly at El-Baradei.
El-Baradei's silent majority?
The IAEA chief became public enemy number one amongst certain circles of policy-makers when he announced in late August that he had independently agreed a deal with Tehran without seeking the advice - let alone consent - of western capitals. The deal - which sets a timetable for Iran to clarify its past nuclear research and commits the country to IAEA inspections and greater transparency - earned the ire of western diplomats for ignoring Iran's continuing uranium enrichment. Iran remains in violation of recent United Nations Security Council resolutions calling for the suspension of its uranium enrichment programme, which western officials claim is an early phase of its weapon proliferating ambitions.
There is a growing realisation, however, that progress will not be made if the international community insists on the suspension of uranium enrichment, and that the UNSC resolutions regarding suspension were non-starters. Iran has dressed the development of its civilian nuclear programme in the bold colours of national sovereignty. While western powers harbour suspicions, much of the developing world - not to mention Russia and China - sympathise with Iran's quest to become more energy self-sufficient. The developing nations present on the IAEA's 35-member board of governors - a somewhat more democratic and representative body than the Security Council - endorsed El-Baradei's plan.
Many critics in Washington and London bemoan the reluctance of Russia and China to fully close ranks with the west in tackling Iran. But it may be the west that is forced to modify its stance. By circumventing the stubborn western position, El-Baradei, recipient of the 2005 Nobel peace prize, is steering Iran away from the brink of conflict. His ability to do so is also a measure of the support he enjoys from the smaller, poorer countries in the diplomatic arena. Where the west sees its security imperilled, other nations fear that a glass ceiling is falling into place that will prevent them from pursuing energy self-sufficiency.
With Kouchner ratcheting up the rhetoric, Europe's view of Tehran is becoming increasingly indistinguishable from that of the Bush administration. Should the E3 refuse to accommodate El-Baradei's deal with Iran, it will be a failure of European imagination as well as diplomacy.