Addressing the US Congress this week, and the European Parliament a week earlier, French President Emmanuel Macron made an impassioned plea for multilateralism and a liberal world order. Yet his suggestion in Washington, after meeting the President Donald Trump, that a “new deal” on Iran might be in the offing to “build on the existing Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA),” known as the nuclear deal, runs decidedly against his professed fondness for multilateralism.
Little is known about this proposal, apart from vague talk of three additional “pillars” to “contain Tehran”—extending the nuclear-related restrictions beyond the expiration date of the JCPOA, addressing Iran´s ballistic missiles program, and dealing with its role in regional crises from Syria to Yemen. In a similar vein, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, visiting Washington few days after Macron, said that the JCPOA is “insufficient to curb Iran’s ambitions.” No “new deal”, however, was discussed in the EU, much less adopted as the common position. In fact, the last time the bloc´s 28 foreign ministers discussed Iran—on April 16, under the stewardship of the EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy Federica Mogherini—they reaffirmed their strong support for the JCPOA and reiterated that other issues, such as Iran´s missiles or regional policies, should be discussed outside the scope of the JCPOA. The vast majority within the EU, after all, believe that the JCPOA is delivering on its purposes and see no reason whatsoever to reopen an agreement that took 12 years to negotiate.
The Euro-trio of France, Germany, and UK, all of them parties to the JCPOA, has been engaged in negotiations with the US on bridging the transatlantic division over the deal ever since Trump issued his ultimatum to the European allies in January 2018. There, however, seems to be no clear strategy on behalf of the EU3. For example, Germany’s reaction to the French proposal suggests that Macron had not consulted and coordinated with Berlin. The spokesperson of the foreign ministry said that the JCPOA could not be renegotiated. And although Merkel seemed to be echoing Macron’s views at the meeting with Trump, the day before her own foreign ministry suggested that Iran needed to be engaged if any talks on a “new deal” are to happen. EU member states such as Italy, Spain, Austria, and Sweden, having resisted earlier attempts to impose new sanctions on Iran promoted by the EU3 in an apparent bid to secure Trump´s continued commitment to the deal, also viewed this maneuvering with a critical eye. A change in the EU common position from defending the JCPOA to endorsing “a new deal” or “side agreement” requires unanimity among its member states. Based on the experience of the previous weeks, it is unlikely to be achieved, at least before May 12.
Despite this, Macron-Merkel gambit has already damaged the EU in several important ways.
First, the EU´s unified position in support of the deal is one of its key assets to leverage against Trump´s unilateral attempts to violate and eventually kill it. By launching their own unilateral proposals, without consensus in the EU, the EU3 has undermined European unity by inviting Washington to move in to exploit intra-European differences.
Second, Washington foreign policy circles interpreted Macron and Merkel’s entreaties to Trump not as an attempt to save the deal, their professed objective, but as a sign that France and Germany are ready to cave in to a more aggressive American approach towards Iran. The support of a post-Brexit UK increasingly keen on forging bilateral partnerships with the US and Saudi Arabia, Iran’s principal regional foe, is taken for granted. With the EU3 now closer to Trump’s line, it is expected to try to push new restrictions on Iran down the throat of the rest of the members of the Union.
Third, by offering far-reaching concessions, such as imposing more restrictions on Iran, without securing anything in exchange from Trump, the EU3 further undermined the already weak incentives the US administration might have had to reach a compromise with the Europeans: why would Washington bother to make any concessions if, with relatively mild pressure, it is able to secure what it wants anyway? Ironically, Macron was selling his idea of a new, and tougher, deal at the same time when Jim Mattis, the US defence secretary, was assuring the Senate Armed Services Committee that the existing deal had “very robust” verification mechanisms. A wrong sequencing of steps led to squandering the leverage Macron and Merkel could have otherwise deployed on behalf of the EU.
Fourth, hinting that Europeans are ready to join the US in violating multilateral agreements whenever a US president seems to dislike them, for purely domestic political reasons detached from their actual merits or the third party’s compliance, sends a message of European unreliability. Who would negotiate in good faith with the EU knowing that it is ready to fold under American pressure?
Fifth, the perception that the EU is supporting the US in containing Iran more aggressively risks shifting the internal political debate in Iran in a direction that would make it more difficult for Europe to manage negative fallout in Tehran from the US withdrawal. President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, the principal architects of the deal on the Iranian side, are already under fire from the hardliners for staking their hopes on the West delivering on its side of the deal. The perceptions of European complicity in destroying the JCPOA will strengthen the voices demanding an immediate withdrawal from the agreement, and possibly even the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The likelihood of such dramatic steps for now is not very high, but the EU cannot afford to risk a North Korea-type nuclear crisis in its neighborhood.
To his credit, shortly before leaving Washington, Macron acknowledged the likely failure of his attempt to convince Trump to stay within the JCPOA. Now is the time to do some urgent damage limitation.
The right place to start would be for Macron and Merkel to abandon their unilateral maneuvering and work hard on forging EU consensus on the way forward. The EU should go beyond the lowest common denominator, consisting of repeated statements of political support for the JCPOA, and work on creating viable economic mechanisms capable of delivering at least some benefits Iran secured as part of the JCPOA. High-level visits not only to Washington, but also to Tehran by Macron and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier—it is very unlikely that Merkel would travel to Iran—with concrete proposals would signal the EU’s real interest in engaging Iran.
Iranians, on the other hand, would be well advised to continue exercising strategic patience on the JCPOA and allow for an extended period of reflection and monitoring of the European response to whatever decision Trump takes on May 12. Decision-making in the EU, involving 28 member states and the European External Action Service, is notoriously slow. But Tehran would be wise to avoid taking any immediate drastic steps that would give ammunition to those who would like to push Iran out of the deal and provoke the snapback of the nuclear-related sanctions. That would be a defeat for the EU, Iran, and international community as a whole.