This continuing tension in European thinking underlines the importance of Berlusconi’s return to power. He and Italy can now make a critical difference, but only if he is prepared to confront the conventional wisdom about Europe’s future. In truth, a larger global role for Europe requires a larger role for individual European nations, not a more powerful European Union. The historical record is clear: the larger the prominence of Brussels in E.U. affairs, the smaller the aggregate role of Europe in the broader world.
Preventing Iran from achieving a nuclear weapons capability could be a decisive test both of trans-Atlantic relations and of Berlusconi’s leadership. For more than five years, European diplomacy by Britain, France and Germany (“the EU-3”), supported by the United States, has failed to constrain Iran’s nuclear program. One principal reason for this failure has been Europe’s collective unwillingness to impose meaningful -- i.e., stringent -- economic sanctions against Iran. Italy, with its large trade relations with Iran, Germany and several others have opposed strong sanctions, and, as a consequence, Iran continues toward a deliverable nuclear weapons capability. In fact, diplomatic efforts to stop Iran now unfortunately seem to be at a dead end.
Berlusconi will thus face a difficult decision, since the imposition today of even very stringent sanctions will likely be too little too late to disrupt Iran’s progress. Moreover, Romano Prodi’s outgoing administration has left Berlusconi a weakened Italian economy, which only makes the incoming Prime Minister’s choices more complex. Unfortunately, however, weak sanctions -- “sanctions without pain” -- which have long been Europe’s preference, are in reality worse than no sanctions at all. Weak sanctions give the appearance of action, while in fact concealing the reality that they have no effect whatever.
The unmistakable signal that such a policy sends to rogue states like Iran is that they can continue their progress on weapons of mass destruction with impunity. That is precisely what they have been doing. For both America and Europe’s leading nations, therefore, the diplomatic chances of preventing Iran from achieving its objectives are rapidly diminishing. Although tough sanctions are at this point almost certainly too late, they would at least demonstrate that Italy and other Europeans are preparing for the even more difficult step that may be required, namely changing the regime in Tehran, or, as a last resort, the targeted use of military force against Iran’s nuclear program.
Of course, the United States faces its own election in November, and the outcome could well result in a change in America’s own direction on Iran. But under the U.S. constitutional system, a President retains full executive power until the moment he leaves office. Moreover, Bush may well be succeeded by John McCain, who takes an even harder line on Iran than Bush does. Mrs. Clinton, no Republican unilateralist, said just before the Pennsylvania primary that she would “obliterate” Iran if it attacked Israel. The argument to delay decisive action, therefore, misses the critical point that delay works in Iran’s favor, as it continues to overcome the scientific and technical challenges in its path to nuclear weapons. Delay almost always works in favor of the proliferators, and that is abundantly clear in Iran’s case.
What will Berlusconi do when he takes office? One way to pull Italy out of its current malaise is to help the United States lead the fight against Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The EU-3 -- which intentionally excluded Italy from their ranks -- have failed for over five years. Berlusconi can provide a significant alternative, and, even more importantly, do something concrete to derail Iran’s threat to the North Atlantic community as a whole.