‘The more Iran misbehaves, the more the West is ready to give’

The story is told that, during Lebanon’s civil war (1975–90), four Soviet diplomats were kidnapped by a terrorist group. Two days later its leader received a box containing the testicles of his son – and a warning from the Russians: “Don’t ever bother our people again.”

The Soviets’ reprisal was ruthless but effective. The three surviving hostages were released unharmed and no more Soviets were kidnapped in Lebanon. A brutal response targeting something deeply valued by the enemy deterred future attempts at blackmail. Is the West doing the same with Iran?

Not quite. At a meeting in Geneva in July, the major powers gave Iran a deadline of August 2 to accept its latest proposal: Iran would not increase its enrichment capacity by adding new centrifuges and the international community would not introduce new sanctions against Iran. This offer is in fact a retreat from the previous demand to stop enrichment or face sanctions — as four UN Security Council resolutions indeed require. The package of incentives is an even more flattering and generous offer than the one made in 2006.

Predictably, the deadline was ignored, just as all the others have been. All Iran had to do was to stop installing new centrifuges in Natanz, its uranium enrichment facility, and then start negotiations on the latest incentive package that the six nations offered Iran in exchange for a suspension of its uranium enrichment programme. Instead, Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, announced the installation of thousands of new centrifuges the week after the Geneva meeting. Then his foreign minister ridiculed the notion of a deadline: “The language of ­deadline-­setting is not understandable to us.”This was after the US had sent its third highest-ranking diplomat to attend the meeting – a major concession that yielded nothing in return. Iran’s diplomats appeared ready only to discuss the incentives they were offered, not to make concessions. Then again, why should they? The more Iran misbehaves, the more the West is ready to give.

Take Germany. Addressing Israel’s parliament in March, Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, declared that “Israel’s security is non-negotiable” and pledged German support for further sanctions against Iran. But while Merkel was in Jerusalem, her economics ministry back home was toiling to get a €100m (£79m) deal to have three liquefied natural gas terminals built for Iran by a German ­company.

What counts more, then: Merkel’s speech or German investment in one of Iran’s most strategic energy projects? True, the Chancellor distanced herself from the deal – but that does not cancel it. As for the rest of Europe, a new round of sanctions against Iran was finalised in Brussels after much bickering and much dilution in April. Then the EU waited two additional months to have the Council of Ministers approve it – giving Iran enough time to withdraw precious assets from European branches of an Iranian bank before the sanctions could freeze the funds. Meanwhile, Europe’s debate on how to implement the latest UN resolution against Iran has barely started.

What about the threat of military action against Iran’s nuclear installations? Several European and American leaders have repeatedly and strenuously indicated their opposition to such a possibility. Italy’s foreign minister said emphatically that an attack on Iran would be a “disaster” — only the latest in a long list of dignitaries to reassure Tehran that they have nothing to fear.

Then there are the much-­ridiculed deadlines, which the West rarely enforces. The 2006 proposal was meant to stay on the table for a month. When Iran said no – two months after the deadline – the offer was left for it to reconsider. When it became clear that Iran did not intend to reconsider, the offer was improved.Sometimes threats have been translated into sanctions, but agreements on the substance typically took months. The actions of individual governments suggested that collective threats were not taken too seriously: less than a month after UN resolutions 1747 and 1803 were approved, OMV, the Austrian energy giant, and EGL, a Swiss company, both signed big energy deals with Iran.

Iran has tested Western resolve in other, blunter ways. It has breached its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and made a mockery of inspections. It supplied weapons to Shia militias in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan. It kidnapped 15 British sailors last year and has harassed American warships in the Straits of Hormuz. In July it tested missiles capable of hitting India and Europe. It routinely announces that Israel should be “wiped off the map”. All at no cost – Iran gets away with it.

This is not to suggest that it would be better to castrate the children of Iran’s leaders. It is to advocate an approach that will threaten Iran’s most vital interests and hit the Islamic Republic where it is most vulnerable. How far are we prepared to go to blunt Iran’s nuclear ambitions? As yet, not very far – and Iran knows it.

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