Europe risks destroying the nuclear agreement with Iran

#CriticalThinking

Picture of Rouzbeh Parsi
Rouzbeh Parsi

Head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs

Dr Rouzbeh Parsi is the Director of the European Iran Research Group and a senior lecturer at Lund University, Sweden

In many ways, the Trump administration has been a nightmare to those who see the transatlantic bond as crucial to European security and to the European Union’s role in the world. Conversely, anyone hostile to the United States has had their opinion about it confirmed by the haphazard and aggressive foreign policy of President Donald Trump.

In a very involuntary way, Washington is forcing the EU to meet the challenge of maintaining the international order it helped build in the aftermath of World War 2. The problem is that not everyone in the EU has received the message, and some countries, say Hungary, prefer the pre-1939 visions espoused by some in the White House to the lofty ideals still put forward by Brussels.

No one can realistically expect Brussels to take Trump head on in the various fields where his administration is putting old truths and assumptions in question.

Yet, it is worrying to see how the EU’s most significant foreign policy success in the last decade and a major victory for the non-proliferation cause ‒ the Iran nuclear deal ‒ is being systematically undermined by the Trump administration while the EU dithers.

Giving in to President Trump on this issue will neither mollify him nor will it increase the EU’s credibility when it comes to standing its ground on other matters

To be fair, the EU High Representative Federica Mogherini has done her utmost to shore up support for the nuclear agreement with Iran and to signal to Washington that the European commitment to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is non-negotiable.

The primary reason for this commitment is that none of the complaints the Trump administration is raising regarding the agreement have been substantiated.

More often than not, those complaints are based on the conviction of Trump and some of his neoconservative supporters that the Islamic Republic of Iran is illegitimate and should be shunned and pressured into oblivion. But it did not lie within the remit of the UN Security Council and Germany to negotiate the very existence of the Islamic Republic but, rather, to try and rein in its nuclear enrichment programme.

Recently, the big three European powers ‒ France, Germany and the United Kingdom ‒ have signalled that they can meet Trump halfway because there are other issues, beyond the nuclear enrichment programme, where the Iranian behaviour concerns them. This pertains in particular to Iran’s missile programme but also to the country’s support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon. On the face of it, this seems like a clever move to convince Washington to uphold its end of the nuclear bargain by mollifying the Trump administration through sanctions based on complaints that are not related to the nuclear enrichment programme itself.

This, however, is a grave mistake. Giving in to President Trump on this issue will neither mollify him nor will it increase the EU’s credibility when it comes to standing its ground on other matters. It will also hurt Europe’s ability to reach diplomatic solutions on thorny issues such as North Korea’s actual nuclear capability.

In Iran, the critics of the deal see in the European signals to Trump the second confirmation of the agreement as a strategic error

And while the proponents of such a conciliatory move may think it will save the JCPOA, they forget that this agreement is a political construct that needs constant tending to survive. In Teheran, where the government is hard pressed to show tangible dividends from the agreement for ordinary Iranians and not just the economy at large, the new European line increases their political vulnerability.

In Iran, the critics of the deal see in the European signals to Trump the second confirmation of the agreement as a strategic error. They insisted from the outset that the US was not to be trusted and would renege on any agreement it entered ‒ and they were right. They have also long claimed that Europe lacks the necessary spine and wherewithal to stand its ground vis-à-vis the US. These latest signals from the big three European powers seem to confirm this suspicion. So while hardliners tend to get many things wrong about Europe, it is bad enough that they might end up being right in this instance.

In order for the JCPOA to survive, the engagement with Iran must be sustained and the economic relationship needs to grow. Due to American subversion of the basic quid pro quo, the economic dividends to Iranian society are at risk of withering away.

While Europe has every right to criticise various aspects of the Iranian foreign policy, it needs to maintain the strategic perspective and remember the lesson of what preceded the JCPOA: Threats and sanctions did not make Tehran change its mind. Engagement and recognition did.

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