Energy security and Iran: Assessing the transatlantic divide

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

A new chapter offered by the election of President Sarkozy in France and the elevation of Gordon Brown to UK prime minister provides a chance of better transatlantic relations over Iran and energy security, claims Simon Henderson – director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Programme at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy – in a June essay for the Transatlantic Institute.

Henderson argues that although the G8 summit’s focus on energy security reflects a common concern, much remains to be agreed upon – especially concerning the Middle East. Despite Iran being in a position to cast a shadow over the Caspian Basin and the Persian Gulf – two crucial areas of energy supply to the European and US economies – Europe and the US are at odds over the question of energy policy. 

For Henderson, there is no doubt that Iran should be a common concern as it dominates the Strait of Hormuz, through which 40% of the world’s internationally-traded oil passes daily. However, he highlights the differing nature of the debate on each side of the Atlantic. In the US, the crux of the issue is reducing America’s dependence on imports of foreign oil, particularly from the Middle East, whereas in Europe, there is no echo of this, with dependence set to increase through the trans-Turkey pipeline bringing Iranian gas directly to Europe. 

In Europe, there is a sense that the way ahead is simply to reduce energy consumption and intensify diplomacy, Henderson claims. The Americans accept the notion that diplomacy needs a broader range of tools – yet while Europe’s distaste for resorting to force meets with scorn in America, US military prowess is interpreted as ‘gun-toting’ in Europe, he writes. 

Regarding Russia, the author insists that there is a firm sense in the US that Moscow should expect its current diplomatic toughness and continuing military strength to be countered in kind, although he accepts that the idea of military force is horrific – and absurd – to contemplate. 

Henderson claims that European calls for Americans to reduce their per capita consumption of energy are unrealistic. The US is not Belgium, he remarks – it is huge, its towns and cities are spread out, and it endures extremes of temperature and weather. The author argues that it cannot function without offering cheap energy bills to its citizens, who must in turn maintain high levels of consumption – because without widespread car ownership and expensive heating and air-conditioning bills, much of the States would be uninhabitable. 

Henderson concludes that the best way forward for the US and Europe on Iran is a greater semblance of unity. Europe should contemplate the consequences of a nuclear Iran on its access to future energy supplies and join the position expressed by the US, he states, further demanding that European countries continue with – and enhance – their naval presence in the Gulf. 

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