For all of its bluster about being equal in importance and prestige as the United States, the nations of the European Union continue to fall short in both arenas for one simple reason - they are generally useless when it comes to dealing with obstreperous countries and getting their way.
The crisis with Iran is a real chance to change that, for the benefit of both Europe and the United States. Iran has obviously noted, likely with a great degree of amusement, that Americans are losing their stomach for war while Europeans have displayed zero willingness to fight for years. Thus, the ayatollahs and their puppet president (who was "democratically elected," remember) know well that they can continue to defy the world with little to no real ramifications. They've decided that if they want the bomb, they can go ahead and get it.
While the misguided "anti-war" movement in this country is undoubtedly helping Iran reach this conclusion by adopting the popular European approach of all wars being unacceptable, the bigger, more direct problem that a military solution to the Iranian issue presents is the current level of committment of American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
However, Europe - with the possible exception of the United Kingdom - does not have this problem. While Britain remains committed in both Afghanistan and Iraq, countries like France and Germany have remained specifically on the sidelines in Iraq and have minimal commitments in Afghanistan and elsewhere. They have militaries. They have means. But Iran is willing to wager everything that the nations of Europe will keep those militaries idle while the big dog is busy taking care of issues on either side of their border.
Europe is supposed to be an ally of the United States, but the alliance is clearly uneven, with the balance tipped toward America. The European Union was founded with the unstated goal of evening that balance. But when was the last time you heard of any grand coalition being led by a European power?
To their credit, Europe has been steadfast in taking point on negotiations with Iran up until now. The question is whether they will continue to be steadfast and put due pressure on the ayatollahs to bend to the world's view. With the United Nations revealed time and time again to be nothing more than a paper tiger when it comes to dealing with totalitarians, the task falls to other organizations to achieve goals the UN could only dream of achieving, and such is the case here. Europe's challenge is to avoid falling into the same trap that the UN did long ago by issuing demands and then doing nothing when those demands are not met.
Both World Wars were largely fought in Europe, and the horrible experiences that the continent went through during the early 20th Century has led to the prevalent belief that war must be avoided no matter the cost. That belief kept the peace during the second half of the century and helped ensure that the Cold War came to a conclusion without significant conflict and bloodshed returning. However, we are now living in a world where dangerous extremists seek more and more power and are more than willing to give their lives to that end. The War on Terrorism and radical Islam is not a war of choice, we merely choose to dictate the terms of when and where the battles will take place, because if we do not, as Europe does not, the terms will be dictated to us, and they will not be palatable.
While the United States is certainly not alone in fighting the War on Terrorism, it certainly has been shouldering a significant part of the load. For decades, the powers of Old Europe have looked to the United States to serve as the policeman of the world, making more sacrifices and more commitments to save Western civilization than any other country has been expected to. And now, Europe has arrived at a point where they would normally look to the United States for assistance, but none will be readily available militarily.
How would a military campaign on Iran work? It would clearly be very similar to the coalitions which won the Gulf War, which rooted out the Taliban, and which toppled Saddam. But the one thing each of those coalitions had in common were the nation which took point. This time, why not a French and German led coalition, a coalition in which the United States could still play a key role - perhaps making use of our air power as a solid augment with special forces on the ground and our powerful Navy operating along Iran's coast - while the nations of Europe lead the operation. Regardless of whether they approve or not, the French must realize that our commitments in Iraq are not going to simply disappear just because Iran is causing trouble. If they want things to get done, they may have to grow the backbone that they lost long ago and start pointing guns in response to saber rattling. Hell, if I were French, I'd want to do it if only to show that we still mattered, and if I were German, I'd want to do it if only to finally be invading another country for the purposes of good instead of evil.
A European-led coalition would benefit the continent by allowing the European Union to grow in international prestige while the world benefits from a defused crisis and likely, a free Iran. Everything the EU has wanted is right there for the taking, but if they refuse to take risks, it will only make matters worse for the entire world.