Will Germany Back Obama's Iran-Sanctions Coalition?

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Michel Euler / AFP / Getty

German Chancellor Angela Merkel attends a meeting of G-8 leaders in L'Aquila, Italy

Tougher sanctions are a key component of the U.S. strategy for curbing Iran's nuclear program, but the Obama Administration is facing growing difficulty in enlisting the international support necessary to make sanctions effective. Russia and China indicated earlier this month that they would not support a new round of economic measures against Tehran, deflating Administration hopes of tightening the screws on the Islamic Republic when the U.N. General Assembly convenes next week in New York City. But if the reluctance of Beijing and Moscow to back new sanctions was expected, support may also be waning in at least one quarter on which the U.S. had been counting: European and American sources tell TIME that Germany is unlikely to support tougher sanctions unless those have the backing of the entire European Union, dramatically complicating President Barack Obama's diplomatic challenge.

Even as Obama has pushed for renewed talks with Iran, which are now scheduled to start Oct. 1, he and his advisers have made it clear they would impose what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called "crippling" sanctions if Iran did not heed international demands. Without the threat of such sanctions, key Administration policymakers believe, Iran will have little incentive to give anything up, whether or not they are engaged in talks.

In backroom talks throughout the summer, Administration negotiators worked to convince Russia and China to support punitive measures that would target not just Iranian and foreign companies engaged in proliferation-related business, but other companies as well, including those with ties to the Iranian energy sector. But the effort appears to have proved fruitless — at a recent meeting of the foreign ministers of the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow remains opposed to new sanctions. China followed suit soon thereafter.

More painful to the Administration's sanctions effort, however, is the potential loss of Germany's support. Berlin is an active trading partner with Iran, and if it were to split with France, Britain and the U.S. on sanctions, it could render any new measures largely symbolic. Though they prefer unanimity, England and France have previously been willing to adopt new measures against Tehran without full E.U. agreement; Germany has resisted. Once again on the latest effort against Iran, Germany has indicated that it is unlikely to support new sanctions without the rest of the E.U., according to European and American sources.

Getting E.U. endorsement presents a herculean challenge because the Union makes decisions on a consensus basis that effectively gives any one of its 27 member states a veto. And one senior European diplomat points out that some E.U. member states are domestically constrained from imposing sanctions except those that have been authorized by U.N. resolutions. That means that a Russian or Chinese veto of new sanctions measures at the Security Council could actually prevent Germany from signing on. And Russia is hardly looking flexible. Foreign Minister Lavrov reiterated Russia's opposition to new sanctions Sept. 17, even after the U.S. announced the scrapping of a plan to deploy a missile-interceptor system in Poland and the Czech Republic — a move Moscow had long sought.

The U.S. does, however, have a last-ditch move that it can make with France and Britain, or even alone. Legislators on Capitol Hill are preparing a tough bill that would impose sanctions on third-country companies that supply the gasoline imports on which Iran relies for about one-third of its consumption. House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Howard Berman, a California Democrat, has said he will mark up his bill next month. But the fewer allies that sign on for such tough sanctions, the more those sanctions are likely to hurt the U.S. rather than Iran.