Iran General NewsMerkel's new mission - forging unity on Iran

Merkel’s new mission – forging unity on Iran

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Reuters: German Chancellor Angela Merkel may be emerging as a pivotal figure in the Iran nuclear crisis, using her ties with Washington and Moscow to try to forge a common approach to confronting the Islamic Republic. By Noah Barkin

BERLIN (Reuters) – German Chancellor Angela Merkel may be emerging as a pivotal figure in the Iran nuclear crisis, using her ties with Washington and Moscow to try to forge a common approach to confronting the Islamic Republic.

After her recent meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush, a three-pronged strategy for isolating Tehran is taking shape in Berlin, according to German officials familiar with Merkel’s thinking.

The first prong relies on Merkel using her personal influence to convince Putin to stay onside as the West ratchets up pressure on Iran to suspend uranium enrichment and prove it is not developing nuclear weapons.

The second involves nudging the Bush administration, which has often advocated a swift, hard-line approach with Iran in the past, towards a more patient, long-term view on resolving the crisis — a shift the Germans feel is well under way after Merkel’s Washington visit last week.

“Our feeling is that the meeting with Bush is something we can really build upon,” a senior German official, who requested anonymity, said after the leaders met in the Oval Office and dined together on Wednesday. “We are not expecting any surprises from the Americans. They are ready to go step-by-step because they realise it is in their interests.”

SANCTIONS COALITION?

The third and perhaps most challenging element of the strategy is persuading countries with economic, geographic or strategic links to Iran — not only Russia and China, but also India, Turkey, Japan and Gulf Arab states — to isolate it.

The U.N. Security Council shows little sign so far of being able to agree on Western proposals for concrete action against Iran, and pulling together such a voluntary coalition for some form of sanctions will require intense lobbying from other leaders besides Merkel.

Bringing along China, a veto-holding member of the council along with the United States, Russia, Britain and France, is likely to prove particularly difficult, German officials say.

The Chinese are staunch opponents of sanctions and, although Merkel travels to Beijing this month, her ability to influence them is probably limited.

“This is not a case where the Germans can do things on their own,” said Constanze Stelzenmueller, head of the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Berlin.

Where Merkel may make a difference, however, is with Moscow and Washington, where her influence seems to be on the rise.

Although widely seen as weak when she took over from Gerhard Schroeder in November as head of a seemingly fragile coalition, she now looks like the strongest leader in Europe.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac are both unpopular and politically weak. Bush’s Iraq ally Silvio Berlusconi is gone in Italy, replaced by the leftist Romano Prodi atop a shaky coalition of his own.

More than any other leader in Europe, Merkel is in a position to speak for the bloc these days. Combined with her newness — she carries none of the Iraq baggage that still burdens Blair and Chirac — that makes her an attractive partner, particularly for the Bush administration.

“Merkel has the most energy, the most options and the most weight and legitimacy in Europe right now,” Stelzenmueller said.

PERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS

Another factor behind Merkel’s influence has been her burgeoning relationships with Putin and Bush. Small things, such as Merkel’s background in communist East Germany and her ability to talk to Putin in Russian and Bush in English, play a role.

After she visited Putin in Siberia last month, the German press made much of the fact that they had begun using the familiar “du” address with each other.

On the face of it, Merkel and Bush make an odder couple — a shy former physicist from East Germany and a brash ex-fraternity boy from Texas. But they have hit it off in a way few predicted, talking regularly by phone and meeting twice now in four months.

On his way to a meeting in July of the Group of Eight powers hosted by Russia, Bush will visit Merkel near her home in the former east. A barbecue is planned.

Forging a diplomatic solution to the showdown over Iran’s nuclear programme, which Tehran says is purely for civilian purposes, will be a long, arduous process. On Sunday, Iran said any punitive measures taken against it by the Security Council would push it away from cooperation towards confrontation.

But Merkel, who accused Schroeder of dividing Europe in the run-up to the Iraq war, appears determined to do her part to hold the international community together this time with the same old-fashioned personal diplomacy that allowed her to broker an EU budget deal last year, only weeks after taking office.

“We have learned the lessons of the Iraq conflict,” she told an audience in New York. “We can’t give dictators the sense that the democratic world is divided over how to deal with them.”

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