The coming clash: Why Iran will divide Europe from the United States

Press release

Europe is heading for a major clash with America over Iran

Europe must salvage the nuclear deal with Iran and step-up robust diplomacy with Tehran on regional issues

Iran is becoming the foreign policy focal point of Europe’s division with Trump’s US, according to a new report from the European Council on Foreign Relations.

This month, Trump outlined his strategy towards Iran, centred on aggressive containment and isolation of the country – a sharp break from the diplomatic openings created by his predecessor. While European capitals share many of Washington’s concerns about Iran, they have fundamental disagreements with regards to the appropriate instruments for effective progress. This disagreement is now playing out openly with regards to the Iran nuclear deal (the JCPOA).

Europe seeks to safeguard the nuclear deal, and use a similar model of multilateral diplomacy with Iran to reduce instability in the Middle East. In contrast, the US is seemingly moving towards a policy aimed at weakening the Iranian leadership through economic, political and possibly military means.

Trump’s desire to undermine the nuclear deal has been tempered by moderating influences such as Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who has pressed Trump to adhere to the deal in order to keep allies on board with pursuing a more aggressive pushback against Tehran on regional issues.

But while stopping short of ending the deal altogether, Trump’s unpredictability has effectively put the deal in limbo. The administration has also unambiguously sided with Iran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia.

This means that European governments need to prepare for increasing tensions between Iran and the United States.

To do so, they need to understand how Iran is responding to Trump’s measures. So far, Tehran has been careful not to overreact to Trump’s war of words, particularly since Iranian officials believe that Trump is succeeding at doing what Iran has long hoped for: driving a wedge between Europe and the United States.

Tehran is keen to maintain positive ties with Russia, China and particularly Europe, as they believe that such an international consensus is the most effective means of safeguarding the country from the type of UN Security Council sanctions that laid the groundwork for Iran’s isolation during the 2000s.

But Trump’s actions are also changing the political dynamics in Iran by providing hardliners with ammunition for their domestic battles. There is now significant consensus in Iran on the need to develop Iran’s missile capability and in support of the IRGC, which was not the case as recently as the election campaign earlier this year.

Iran has already passed its own counter-sanctions against the US, vowed to continue missile tests, and increased the budget available for missiles and the IRGC. In private discussions, Iranian officials often highlight to European counterparts that if Trump sabotages the nuclear deal, this dynamic will accelerate, making it more difficult for Iran to compromise with the West on regional issues.

As such, Europe’s priority in dealing with deteriorating Iran-US relations should be to protect the nuclear deal, while stepping up contingency plans for its failure. The EU and E3 should assume leadership of a political initiative that, together with Russia and China, offers Iran enticements to continue to abide by the core elements of the current deal.

As part of this plan, the EU will need to push back against – and prepare legal mechanisms to block - the enforcement of renewed US secondary sanctions, in order to reassure European companies and Tehran that they remain committed to Iran’s economic integration with global markets.

In parallel with the focus on the JCPOA, Europe also needs to demonstrate the value of diplomacy with Iran by achieving tangible, even if incremental, results on regional issues. This European-led process should begin with engaging both Tehran and Washington in the following ways:
(i) facilitating a multi-stakeholder review of maritime operations in the Persian Gulf aimed at safeguarding freedom of navigation; 
(ii) an effort by European governments, in particular France and the UK, to de-escalate the conflict in Yemen and expand humanitarian access;
(iii) convening Iraq’s neighbours for a multilateral political process aimed at easing tensions over Iraqi Kurdistan;
(iv) pressing regional actors such as Iran and Saudi Arabia to voluntarily apply international regimes that create greater transparency over the use of ballistic missiles.

Incremental progress on resolving other areas of disagreement is likely to help build confidence and normalise relations between Iran and the West. Indeed, the implementation of the nuclear deal has already begun to achieve this through a détente between Europe and Iran.


Notes to editors

Read the paper online: The coming clash: Why Iran will divide Europe from the United States

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Report author Ellie Geranmayeh is available for comment. She can be reached at [email protected]

Alternatively, contact ECFR’s communications manager, Conor Quinn at [email protected] or +44 7413 636323.

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