Europe's leaders have talked an increasingly tough line on Iran sanctions, including cutting off imports of oil and gasoline, should Iran not satisfy nuclear demands by the United Nations (UN) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) by the end of September. That deadline is now trumped by the Oct. 1 talks.
In Europe's view, sanctions are punitive and symbolic – an alternative to the military strikes called for today by former Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh. But there's fresh debate in Europe over whether sanctions will – or won't – widen a rift between ordinary Iranians and their authoritarian government.
"The EU has so far been able to agree to sanctions stronger than the UN asked for," says Bruno Tertrais of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. "The consensus position on Iran is fairly hawkish."
How long the unity will last among European Union members, given that some of them have large commercial interests at stake, is unclear, he says. But he also adds that "If the EU is divided, it is also because of the lack of a clear US policy."
Europe takes a "twin-track" approach to Iran's unwillingness to show the extent of the development of its centrifuge technology and whether its suspected uranium enrichment is weapons-grade or not. The EU is offering inducements for stopping uranium enrichment, and threatening harsher sanctions, if Iran doesn't comply.
Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb said Tuesday the EU should "unilaterally" adopt sanctions if the UN can't agree to them on Iran.
"There is zero appetite [in Europe] for bombing nuclear installations in Iran," says Thomas Klau of the European Council on Foreign Relations in Paris. "That is seen as a foreign-policy disaster. If there is a choice between sanctions and a military attack, we might see a backing of sanctions."
Why sanctions could backfire
Iran specialists here worry that in a state as nationalistic as Iran, sanctions could be used by hard-liners to unify a public that has been divided and angry after the June elections. Foreign powers are often depicted in official propaganda as Satanic or evil influences in Iran, and sanctions could backfire – particularly since Tehran has consistently taken the view with its own people that the nation is only seeking its right to peaceful atomic energy.
Iranian experts agree that sanctions in fact could ironically help enrich Iran's Revolutionary Guard, whose various factions control the black market in sales of everything from iPhones to appliances, recently described in the International Herald Tribune by US businessman Joseph Guo, who worked in Tehran this summer. Iranian-American analyst Karim Sadjadpour estimates this black market trade runs in the billions.
Clément Therme at the Graduate Institute of Geneva offers that "The Islamic republic has a firm stance on its nuclear program, claiming to defend not only their own right to civil nuclear energy but other nonaligned nations' as well, like Brazil. So sanctions are not likely to make the regime bend. Engaging Iran seems the more sensible approach, even though we cannot expect results in the short term."
Last year, Germany did more than $4 billion in trade with Iran. French and British business interests are also substantial.
Iran has faced sanctions like bank asset freezes since 2006, but not ones as potentially threatening as a cutoff of gasoline and diesel imports. Iran, while the fifth largest producer of oil, has limited refining capabilities and imports about 40 percent of its gasoline.
On Wednesday, the Iranian energy minister, Massoud Mirkazemi, said his country was unworried about oil and gas sanctions: "We are ready to deal with any possible gasoline sanction.... We have signed deals with some countries to purchase gas," Mr. Mirakzemi told state TV in Tehran, according to Reuters.
Are the Oct. 1 talks part of Iran's plan to buy time to build its nuclear program? Click here for more on this.