When Donald Trump decided to violate the Iran nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) all eyes fell on Europe. Would the European Union be able to salvage the deal and create the political space for Iran to maintain its commitments under it?
The chances are not great. The P5+1, which is now the P4+1 (United Kingdom, France, China, Russia, plus Germany) will need to provide for sufficient business and investment in Iran to improve the Iranian economy while contending with US sanctions. So-called “secondary sanctions,” whereby the US penalizes businesses that engage with the sanctioned country, will make it difficult.
A combined European effort will be crucial, but history does not paint a promising picture of Europe challenging the United States. Europe has a massive trade relationship with the US, which it naturally doesn’t want to endanger.
Although the US has generally gotten its way because of the size of its market and its dominant role in international finance, those outcomes have been due at least in part to US respect for the interests of its European partners.
But at a recent panel at the Atlantic Council, some European officials gave a strong indication that the continent is feeling abandoned and abused by the Trump administration. Delphine O, a member of the French National Assembly from Emmanuel Macron’s party, said that there had not been sufficient political will to oppose the US in the past. “I think this has changed,” she told the Atlantic Council audience.
I’m sorry, but we’ve been screwed by the United States. Not only did they violate their own commitment which is an international commitment, but they’re preventing our companies to do business. And all of a sudden people are waking up and saying why are we allowing our partner and friend to do this? And in a way it is fostering solidarity and unity.
Barbara Slavin, the director of the Council’s Future of Iran Initiative and moderator of the panel, subsequently wrote, “Donald Trump may have inadvertently done Europe a favor. By unilaterally and definitively violating the Iran nuclear deal, the Trump administration is galvanizing Europeans in unprecedented ways to challenge the capricious use of U.S. secondary sanctions and American dominance of the global financial system.”
The panel also included Omid Nouripour of Germany’s opposition Green Party. In April, Nouripour and O, along with British MP Richard Bacon, got over 300 parliamentarians from their countries to sign an open letter to Congress imploring them to stop Trump from destroying the JCPOA. Part of what Congress and Trump didn’t heed in the letter presaged what Europeans are saying now.
It is in the US and Europe’s interest to prevent nuclear proliferation in a volatile region, and to maintain the transatlantic partnership as a reliable and credible driving force of world politics. We are open to dialogue on the best ways to tackle these challenges together. But let us be clear: if the deal breaks down, it will be well-nigh impossible to assemble another grand coalition built around sanctions against Iran. We must preserve what took us a decade to achieve and has proved to be effective.
Now that Trump has backed out of the deal, Nouripour said, European anger at the US has reached a new height, unseen even during the days of the Vietnam War or the invasion of Iraq.
In Vietnam, people were upset with the pictures they saw. In Iraq, no one had a plan for the day after. But now, the core security interests of Europe are touched on.
A couple of bad and wrong narratives I hear from the White House these days. The first one is that this is a ‘bad Obama deal.’ This is not an Obama deal, this is a joint deal…We spent 12 years on this deal…One other is that to kill the deal means to prevent proliferation in the Middle East. This is something like [saying] I’m going to remove every fire hydrant to fight fire. So of course, the public mood in Europe is not very happy with the current US president. This is nothing new, it happened before, but this is the first time that people feel physically threatened.
The third member of the Atlantic Council’s panel, Caroline Vicini—the deputy head of the EU delegation to the United States—addressed the context in which the deal is often discussed in Washington.
In Europe, this [discourse] is anchored in a multilateral context and a UN context. This was an agreement that was blessed by the United Nations Security Council, it has engaged the P5. It is therefore seen not as a US-Iran deal or EU-US-Iran business. This is multilateral, part of the UN architecture for non-proliferation…Therefore we find this to be somewhat reckless that you have an agreement…and you blow it up to replace it with what? To a situation where there is no agreement whatsoever…and what we are asking ourselves is what is the plan? How is this all-encompassing deal that has been asked for because the JCPOA was deemed to be too narrow, how is that going to be put in place?
The message that came through from these diplomats is that Britain, France, and Germany are united in opposition to the policies of the current US administration in a way not seen before. As Slavin put it,
The Trump administration seems to believe that Europe will pressure Iran to resume negotiations on a ‘better’ deal than the JCPOA. But the Europeans say that while they will continue conversations with Washington about Iran, the responsibility for devising a new strategy to contain both Iran’s nuclear program and its regional ambitions lies with the Trump administration.
Perhaps the so-called P4+1 needs only to paper over the rupture caused by the US departure for a few years, in the hope that 2020 brings a new administration that will work to re-establish not only the Iran dea, but US credibility and the faith of US allies. But it will be an arduous task. European businesses are naturally going to be frightened of being cut off from the US market and US financial institutions. And, although anger and outrage against Trump’s hubris is high right now, it remains to be seen if the political will that seems to exist today can be sustained.
Still, the words of these European diplomats offer hope that the JCPOA can be salvaged. The foolhardy decision by Trump—which does nothing but incentivize Iran to double down on all the behaviors the US claims it wants to prevent—and his apparent conviction to strongly enforce secondary sanctions may have ruptured the international order and permanently reduced US dominance. That is surely an unintended consequence. But if the Europeans remain steadfast, perhaps the story can have a happy ending after all.