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Skepticism over 'breakthrough' Middle East peace plan

London report of Israeli-Palestinian plan linked to Iran sanctions disputed by European experts.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 26, 2009

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown (r.) met with his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu Tuesday in London.

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A report by the Guardian newspaper that Israel is close to a White House Middle East peace deal – linking a partial freeze on Israeli settlements to sweeping sanctions on Iran – has captured diplomatic attention in Europe, though some details are being met with skepticism.

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Most experts doubt the Obama team is ready to fuse the two crucial policies, particularly in the aftermath of Iranian elections.

Yet with French president Nicolas Sarkozy today suggesting “reinforced sanctions” on Iran if Tehran’s nuclear policy does not change by a Sept. 20 UN summit, and expressing support for a Palestinian state and immediate freeze on settlements – the White House may have a partner in Middle East dealmaking. Under Sarkozy, France has taken an ever tougher line against Iran’s nuclear and missile policy – partly to close the earlier gap with the Americans over Iraq, and partly because France and other European nations have crept closer to Israel.

Yet with authority in Tehran now in flux, European diplomats say, it is far too early to pose clear sanctions policies since their outcome could in the end hurt moderates and others seeking reform.

"Sanctions are not part of any headlines in the US, France, and Britain, right now," says François Heisbourg, author of "Iran, The Choice of Arms" and adviser at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. "We don't know who is in charge in Iran. We don't know who has a brief to do what. We don't know consequences. It's difficult to do diplomacy when you don't know who is affected by your policy.

"But the French support sanctions, as an alternative to bombing. As Voltaire said, it's a terrible idea, but what's the alternative?"

If anything, the French position on Iran's missile and nuclear ambitions has become tougher than the American one – though not widely advertised.

"It is hard for France to have a more hard-line position than the US, since that puts France in the target line of Tehran," says Clément Therme, an Iranian expert at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva. "The French position is weak on Iran and will follow any move from the Obama administration, I'm sure of that. The British are in the same position as the French. But there is no unity in the EU on Iran. Without the Americans competing there, everyone has interests."

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