As Tehran and Washington are relapsing into the rhetoric of war and conflict, Europe should focus on minimizing confrontation between them.
This commentary was first published on thebulletin.org on 2nd February 2017.
US President Donald Trump has stirred all kinds of controversy with European allies during his first fortnight in office. Now, his administration’s evolving policy on Iran is becoming another source of concern across the Atlantic. Europe has a crucial but short window to clearly outline its position on the Iran nuclear deal in ways that could influence policymakers in Washington. In doing so, Europe should focus on preserving the agreement under existing terms as enshrined by the United Nations, and charting a course that minimizes confrontation—whether intentional or accidental—between Iran and the United States in an already turbulent Middle East.
On Wednesday, new National Security Advisor Michael Flynn declared that the United States was “putting Iran on notice.” While it is not clear what exactly he meant, he also criticized Iran’s missiles tests and behavior in the region, calling Tehran’s actions “provocative” and staking out a US position distinctly different from those of Europe and Russia. Although Flynn didn’t directly attack the nuclear deal reached between Iran and six world powers in July 2015, a war of words could easily escalate in ways that threaten it.
The Iran nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), scaled back the country’s nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief. As a presidential candidate, Trump suggested he would “dismantle the disastrous deal” or renegotiate it. As president-elect he condemned the deal, but has since said he would “rigorously” enforce it. And during a White House briefing the same day as Flynn’s comments, US officials stressed “that they were not linking Iran’s missile and regional actions to the nuclear deal at this point,” as Al-Monitor reported. On Thursday, though, Trump tweeted that Iran “should have been thankful for the terrible deal the U.S. made with them.” Going forward, it seems likely that Trump’s calculations over the nuclear deal and sanctions will be influenced by developments on non-nuclear issues and also events abroad—among Russia, US allies in Europe, the Gulf Arab states, and Israel.
An early test of the US administration’s stance will come this spring, when the president is required to renew sanctions waivers that enable non-US companies to do business with Iran, in accordance with the terms of the nuclear deal. Even in advance of spring, there could be more clarity on the issue. The new Republican-majority Congress has already introduced legislation that would impose new sanctions on Iran. Some of these bills, if passed, could undermine the deal. Trump could use his executive powers, in the form of waivers or vetoes, to influence the outcome, and what he is likely to do remains uncertain. Likewise, it is unclear how his administration will interpret “rigorous” enforcement, or what Iranian actions it would see as major or intentional violations.
As the Trump administration finds its footing on Iran policy, Europe can help safeguard the nuclear deal by prioritizing the following goals.
Prevent divisions between the White House and EU. First, the governments of Great Britain, France, and Germany (known as the E3), as well as the European Union, should work with the US administration to prevent the possibility of divergent foreign policies emerging on the nuclear deal. The continued active commitment of all signatories (the E3, Russia and China, as well as the United States and Iran) is essential to the agreement’s longevity. In upcoming meetings and press briefings with the Trump administration and US Congress, European leaders need to underscore the benefits of non-proliferation made possible by the nuclear deal.
Senior European officials should continue to stress that the nuclear deal cannot be renegotiated unilaterally by the United States. The E3 leaders should also seek absolute clarity from the Trump administration on whether it will fulfill US obligations under the nuclear deal, and whether it will veto Congressional sanctions that undercut the deal.
Europeans must also outline the consequences of undermining the nuclear agreement, both in terms of global proliferation threats and regional security in the Middle East. If the United States were to unilaterally undermine the deal, this would discredit the US presidency, and it is highly unlikely that China, Russia, and Europe would commit to reviving the pre-2015 international sanctions architecture against Iran. Europeans should further stress that undermining the agreement or doubling down on assertive action against Iran is likely to provide greater ammunition to those within the Iranian leadership who actively want to provoke a retaliatory US response, either by accelerating the nuclear program or acting against US assets in the Middle East.
Fill the communications gap. Second, Europeans should move quickly to fill the communications gap that is likely to emerge between Washington and Tehran now that former US Secretary of State John Kerry, who developed a close relationship with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, has left office. Together, the E3 foreign ministers, EU High Representative Federica Mogherini, and EU External Action Service Secretary-General Helga Schmid can play a prominent role in bridging differences and defusing tensions that may further erupt as the Trump administration begins to articulate its Iran policy, and as Tehran prepares for presidential elections in May. As in the days before 2013, when nuclear negotiations with Iran began, Europeans should use these channels to privately urge both Tehran and Washington to refrain from actions that could provoke retaliatory behavior—particularly regarding Iran’s missile program and in the Persian Gulf, where there is a risk of confrontation between US and Iranian naval forces.
Be assertive in the Joint Commission. The nuclear deal established a body called the Joint Commission, made up of representatives from each party, which monitors implementation and works to enhance conflict-resolution mechanisms. The European members of the Joint Commission should more forcefully assert their majority voice to ensure the full enforcement of both sides of the bargain—specifically, making sure Iran fulfills its nuclear-related commitments in return for a reintegration into international economic platforms that will bring it tangible economic benefits. Working through the Joint Commission, European policymakers can urge their US counterparts to clarify ambiguities surrounding the application of existing (and future) US sanctions. Uncertainty about sanctions significantly affects the calculations of European companies thinking of doing business with Iran.
Take contingency planning seriously. While prioritizing ways to strengthen and uphold the nuclear deal, Europeans should also develop ideas on what to do if it is seriously undermined by the US executive or legislative branch. Europe could begin thinking about how to work with China, Russia, India, and Japan to salvage the non-proliferation terms of the deal in return for a tangible economic package for Iran. European policymakers should revisit the process and thinking behind the EU’s Blocking Regulation from more than 20 years ago, which resisted the application of US extraterritorial sanctions on Cuba and Iran. This method created the political and legal space to maintain an independent European foreign policy, which may again be required in response US secondary sanctions on Iran.
Europe can also take advantage of this uncertain moment in US policy to work with the United States, China, and Russia on constructing a broader long-term non-proliferation framework for the Middle East that seeks to reduce the threat posed by nuclear warfare in a highly unstable region. Europeans should propose to the US president that instead of expending resources and diplomatic bandwidth to dismantle a deal that is working, he could better serve US security by contributing to a far larger legacy on non-proliferation.
The Iran nuclear deal steered the United States and its allies away from resorting to yet another futile military encounter in the Middle East. It was never intended to solve every problem between the West and Iran, and the two sides continue to take opposing views on a number of critical issues. However, the agreement has proven that Iran and the West have the capacity to resolve complex security challenges through a transactional relationship if there are mutually beneficial outcomes. Instead of watching Tehran and Washington relapse into the rhetoric of war and conflict, Europe should encourage them to build on this winning formula.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.