When President Bush mentioned military action as the last option to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, Chancellor Schroeder quickly seized the opportunity to win voters by positioning himself in opposition to the US president. Schroeder received big applause, when he asked the US to put the military option off the table in a speech that officially started his election campaign.
Is Schroeder an anti-American populist, who cares more about his reelection than the proliferation of nuclear weapons and transatlantic relations?
Or is he a responsible politician, who opposes a dangerous US warpath?
How likely is a US war against Iran?
The following review of newspaper articles gives some answers:
Did President Bush mention the military option, because he seriously considers attacking Iran soon? That's unlikely for the following reasons:
(1) The Washington Post's Barry Schweid believes, that President Bush's statement on Israeli TV that "all options are on the table" was "designed to calm Israel as it prepared to yield Gaza with its Iranian-backed Hamas militia to the Palestinians." The statement does not indicate a shift in US policy on Iran.
(2) Schweid reports that the Bush administration renewed its support for the European-led negotiations with Iran after Chancellor Schroeder's remarks.
(3) There is still time for negotiations since the new National Intelligence Estimate concludes that Iran is ten rather than five years away from the nuclear bomb, as Dafna Linzer describes in The Washington Post:
Until recently, Iran was judged, according to February testimony by Vice Adm. Lowell E. Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, to be within five years of the capability to make a nuclear weapon. Since 1995, U.S. officials have continually estimated Iran to be "within five years" from reaching that same capability. So far, it has not. The new estimate extends the timeline, judging that Iran will be unlikely to produce a sufficient quantity of highly enriched uranium, the key ingredient for an atomic weapon, before "early to mid-next decade," according to four sources familiar with that finding. The sources said the shift, based on a better understanding of Iran's technical limitations, puts the timeline closer to 2015 and in line with recently revised British and Israeli figures.
(4) As noted in our last post, the Bush administration has become more realistic about bringing democracy to the Middle East due to the difficulties in Iraq.
(5) The US does not have the capabilities for regime change in Iran, while strikes against nuclear facilities would be counter-productive, argues Fareed Zakaria in Newsweek: (hat tip to David at Dialog International)
With oil at $66 a barrel, the mullahs are swimming in money. (The high price of oil and Iran's boldness are directly related.) More important, a foreign military attack would strengthen local support for the nuclear program and bolster an unpopular regime. Iran is a country with a strong tradition of nationalism-it is one of the oldest nations in the world. With 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, Tehran has many ways to retaliate against an American strike.
Instead of making "hollow threats" the US should "authorize the European negotiators to make certain conditional offers", opines Zakaria:
The one man who has had extensive negotiations with the Iranians, Mohamed ElBaradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said to me a few months ago that Tehran is seeking a grand bargain: a comprehensive normalization of relations with the West in exchange for concessions on nuclear issues. It will never give up its right to a nuclear program, he argues, but it would allow such a program to be monitored to ensure that it doesn't morph into a weapons project. But the prize they seek, above all, is better relations with the United States. "That is their ultimate goal," he said.
Does this make Chancellor Schroeder's comments anti-American, populist and unwise?
Since the US is not likely to attack Iran anytime soon, Chancellor Schroeder did not need to voice his opposition to such an attack at this point, but President Bush's comments provided an irresistible opportunity for him to win some votes and by indirectly reminding voters of Angela Merkel's more US friendly position on Iraq in the past.
While it is premature and perhaps counter-productive to raise the issue of military actions right now, Schroeder did weaken the West's negotiating position by categorically ruling out the military option for Germany and by giving the impression of major differences within the transatlantic alliance. This emboldens Iran. Therefore he drew criticism from the international media. The leading paper at the US West Coast, The Los Angeles Times, for example opined:
Three years ago, Gerhard Schroeder whipped up German opposition to a U.S.-led war in Iraq to snatch an unlikely second term. This time, the chancellor is playing up the danger of a U.S. military clash with Iran -- but he faces a taller order to distract Germans from the country's economic doldrums.
And the New York Times' Richard Bernstein reports that Chancellor Schroeder was criticized in the German media as well:
Chancellor Gerhard Schröder used an old theme over the weekend to give a new twist to the current German election campaign, saying he would refuse under any circumstances to allow German troops to be used in any military campaign against Iran. But as several commentators and opposition figures argued Monday, if his abrupt introduction of Iran into the campaign is similar to the tactic he used three years ago in connection with Iraq, the current situation is strikingly different. No country, including the United States, is making serious military threats against Iran. (…)
Mr. Schroeder's weekend comments indicated a shift in the German position, because he seems ready to grant Iran guarantees against any use of force without Iranian concessions.
Most of the commentary in the German press was critical of Mr. Schroeder's weekend comments. "Schröder knows that a strike against Iran is not on the agenda and that the U.S.A. is politically and militarily incapable of carrying one out," the German business daily Handelsblatt said in an editorial on Monday. "And yet he misuses Bush's remarks in order to score points in the election campaign. In doing so, he endangers the crucial solidarity of the West." The daily Die Welt said, "The chancellor should be ashamed."
Mr. Schröder seems to be trying to put Mrs. Merkel on the defensive, by pressing her to say clearly whether she would take part in military action against Iran. But opposition spokesmen have instead criticized Mr. Schröder for undermining trans-Atlantic unity over what is essentially a nonissue. "The federal chancellor is giving Tehran the disastrous impression that the world community is no longer united," said Wolfgang Schaeuble, a prominent Christian Democratic Union member of Parliament. "He is thereby accepting the growing danger of an Iranian nuclear bomb." "Although he knows better," Mr. Schaeuble added, "he is acting as if the problem is not in Tehran, but in Washington."