Amid worrying signs of the United States escalating its “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo paid an impromptu visit to Brussels on May 13. Taking advantage of an ordinary meeting of EU 28 foreign ministers and High Representative for Foreign Policy Federica Mogherini that day, Pompeo sought a show of unity of Western allies regarding Iran. He hoped to build on the EU´s uneasiness over Iran´s recent announcement of reduced compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in response to the U.S. unilateral withdrawal a year ago, and to supply additional arguments to bolster the U.S. case against Iran.
The odds of Pompeo´s mission succeeding were always negligible. Not only are there profound differences between the EU and the United States on Iran, there is also a growing perception that U.S. policy is unpredictable. President Donald Trump seems to be counting on “maximum pressure” to get Iran to “call him,” while suggesting no off-ramp in case this call, as seems likely, doesn’t materialize. National Security Advisor John Bolton, meanwhile, consciously pushes for escalation with regime change (if not Iran´s disintegration) as the ultimate goal. And Pompeo seems to be echoing whatever Trump says but has a track record as an unreformed Iran hawk. Against this backdrop, Pompeo´s hastily organized trip to Brussels, which required cutting one day short his scheduled visit to Russia, creates an impression not of a Henry Kissinger-style shuttle diplomacy, but of a superpower cast adrift, with no direction, strategy, or skills to execute its foreign policy.
Not surprisingly, European reactions to Pompeo´s gate-crashing their meeting in Brussels were a mix of indifference and irritation. Mogherini´s statement that “we are here today with a busy agenda, and will see whether and how a meeting can be arranged” did not exactly indicate an over-eagerness to accommodate a visitor from Washington. A widely quoted remark from an unnamed European diplomat suggested that the point of Pompeo´s visit was to seek a photo-opportunity to illustrate Western unity on Iran. If that were the case, he didn´t get what he wanted: there was a protocol photo with his EU counterpart, Federica Mogherini, but not with the foreign ministers of Great Britain, France, and Germany, the three European signatories of the JCPOA.
The visit was a failure not only on symbolic but also substantial political grounds. Far from toeing the Washington line, the EU foreign ministers declared their “continued support for the JCPOA, including on delivering on the benefits of the deal for the Iranian people.” In this context, they “expressed regret at the re-imposition of sanctions by the US and underlined their commitment to achieving full operationalisation of the special purpose vehicle, INSTEX.”
Nor was Pompeo any more successful in persuading the Europeans of Iran’s uniquely nefarious role in the region. He did not provide any specific evidence of alleged Iranian threats against American and allied interests or of Iran´s involvement in acts of sabotage against Saudi oil tankers off the Fujairah emirate in the Persian Gulf. By contrast, Europeans are well aware of the statement of the U.S. Maritime Administration urging caution and an investigation into these incidents. Mogherini and the EU3 foreign ministers warned against any escalation of tensions in the Persian Gulf. They made clear that they held the United States, not Iran, to be primarily responsible for that escalation.
European frustration is all the more intense as they see their security, of which the JCPOA is a fundamental pillar, jeopardized by the ideological obsessions of some American officials, which far exceed any real challenges Iran presents, and the seeming lack of control by an unfocused and ill-informed president.
That is not to say that some aspects of Iranian regional policies, such as Iran´s role in Syria, its ballistic missiles program, or its anti-Israeli rhetoric are of no concern to the Europeans. That’s why they repeatedly signaled their availability to work with the United States to address them, while keeping alive the one instrument that effectively dealt with the biggest challenge of all—Iran’s nuclear program. The U.S. commitment to kill that agreement, despite Iran’s IAEA-certified compliance, and its increased pressure on Iran demonstrate that at this point no rational conversation on Iran is viable with this administration. It will not be swayed by any Iranian action or allied exhortation for restraint, as there seems to be an overriding ideological drive to remove the Iranian regime, by force if necessary.
That, at least, has the benefit of clarity: from now on, the Europeans should focus on their collective national interest. That includes safeguarding whatever modicum of security there is in the Middle East and preventing a war with Iran, which would most assuredly have catastrophic consequences for Europe in terms of non-proliferation, uncontrolled migration, terrorist threats, and oil markets disruptions. Making INSTEX operational in the coming weeks is an indispensable part of this effort, and it should involve working with other stakeholders, such as Russia, China, India, Turkey, and Iraq. Equally important, it should continue the political dialogue with Iran on regional issues with the aim of reducing tensions, for example, in Yemen and Afghanistan.
These steps might anger the United States, which was one of the reasons for the relative European timidity on INSTEX so far. Given, however, the demonstrated inability of this American administration to seek win-win solutions with its nominal allies, there might be no alternative way for Europe to assert its interests. Waiting Trump out in 2020 is not a viable option, as he might be re-elected, and the EU will get another four years of chaos. Even if a Democratic candidate wins, the hostility to Iran is so deeply entrenched in the American system that the EU simply cannot afford to tether its policy to the United States when it comes to its relations with a pivotal player in the Middle East.
If Pompeo´s lackluster trip to Brussels this week had any virtues, it was to sharpen these realities in European minds.