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Is NATO seeking a new kind of legitimacy?

By Jan De Pauw - posted Tuesday, 18 December 2007

At an informal meeting of the foreign ministers of the European Union, NATO and the US in Brussels on Thursday, December 6, the EU and NATO joined America's call for a new round of sanctions against Iran. If the West's position is hardly a surprise, NATO's formal and outspoken support is an altogether new element that considerably alters the map of the conflict.

Russia and transatlanticism

Most directly, Nato's foreign ministers released their statement just ahead of Secretary Rice's meeting with her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov. Russia, as we know, is reluctant about further sanctions against Iran. Even more so since the publication of the US National Intelligence Estimate 2007 revealed that Iran had stopped its military nuclear research in 2003.

To Russia, this suggests there is no immediate threat, that Iran is not in breach of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and so, there is no legitimate basis for further sanctions. With China, Russia will be hard to persuade at the next voting round at the UN Security Council. Yet, the Bush administration takes the view that despite the NIE's findings - which have been called faulty by some - Iran does remain a threat, and is very close to acquiring nuclear military capabilities. In their view, the pressure must be kept on, because only pressure will persuade Iran to change its ways - a lesson also to be learned from the NIE.


In part, it looks as if Rice might be using Nato's support for leverage over the Russians. The Alliance continued enlargement, and America's plans for the deployment of a National Missile Defense system in former Soviet states now turned NATO members, is stinging Russia. In compensation, Russia is rolling its muscles and driving up the rhetoric of unilaterialism. But its bark is worse than its bite. The Russian army is corrupt, demoralised, and underfinanced.

Perhaps it is Rice's gamble that by tightening the screws on Russia via NATO, it will draw the consent of the Russians at the UNSC, in return for better deliberation and co-operation through the NATO-Russia council for instance.

Apart from presenting Russia with somewhat of a dilemma, the agreement between the US, Europe and NATO also signals that the consensus is rather strong.

Only a week ago Germany voiced reservations about further sanctions pending more information from the IAEA. Today, and without hesitation it backs a widely carried propos. France, itself not a NATO-member, objectively allies with NATO nonetheless (as it does too in Afghanistan), thereby invigorating Sarkozy's declared taste for rapprochement with the Alliance. And Turkey, to date not a member of EU, is cosily working with that same EU through its NATO membership.

At the very least, the stated shared focus of all three bodies, the US, the EU and NATO, suggests that all is well in transatlantic affairs, and that more than the usual suspects (E3 and US) are in favour. Clearly, the recent and rather sudden emergence of NATO in the Iranian question, indicates that NATO has regained a role for itself. Through its support for Rice's Iran policy, and in conjunction with the EU, NATO has reestablished itself as the platform for defence and security co-operation between America and Europe. It can offer some tools that the other two partners alone lack.


Of pivotal importance is the fact that the current consensus actively engages Turkey. The country maintains fairly good and stable ties with Iran, both culturally and economically. At the same time, Turkey relates well to Israel. And it also knows that its back is covered - at least in theory - by its membership of that large security community that is NATO. Under Article V of the NATO treaty, any attack against a signatory member is seen as an attack against all members, automatically setting in motion a mechanism of defensive and retributive measures.


Whether NATO members would actually make true on that commitment remains to be seen, but it certainly means that in the arena of strategy and symbolism, Turkey, perhaps more than any other country at the moment, is now in a position to shock and soothe at the same time. It can use its cultural and economic influence to try and influence Iranian tactics. Yet it can also invoke more muscle should the situation warrant such appeals.

Whether NATO would actually retaliate against a nuclear armed Iran remains to be seen. But having regularly come across Iran's shadow in Afghanistan, and in need for a morale boost against the reappearance of the Taliban, it might just be that NATO has little taste for dallying.

That doesn't have to mean NATO is eager for military intervention or anything offensive. It can wield all sorts of other influences. For one thing, the size and reach of the Alliance lends a certain legitimacy to decisions taken by the Alliance. So it renders consensus in the UNSC - although preferable - less stringent and mandatory.

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About the Author

Jan De Pauw is a Belgian Federal Diplomat, posted in Berlin. He holds an M.A. in Philosophy and an M.A. in International Politics. He is an independent writer, and you can find more of his work at his blog Trabecular Meshwork.

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