This stark warning by a senior US official, which equates to borderline criticism of European allies’ trade and investment ties to Iran, is not a novel development coming from the Trump administration. But the fact it was issued in public in a key European country speaks volumes about the pressure on US-Europe relations over Iran.
Until recently, it would be safe to assume McMaster’s remarks and other similar public interventions by senior officials from the Trump administration would have little impact in European capitals. In Berlin, London, Paris and even Brussels, the nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 is considered a landmark achievement for regional and global security. It became unpopular to question the deal’s shortcomings or the way it has financially and strategically bolstered the Iranian regime’s regional ambitions, its involvement in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq or Yemen, or the threat it represents for various other Arab states in the Gulf.
Primarily an economic club, the leading EU powers have tended to look at Iran as an underexplored emerging market with unrivalled opportunities for European businesses and investment, while ignoring all the pitfalls of doing business there. In 2017, trade between EU countries and Iran reached over $13 billion, almost double the previous year’s figures. Germany was Iran’s top trading partner before the global sanctions regime was imposed on Tehran and it is keen to recover the ground it lost to China and other Asian giants; while Italy has now positioned itself as Iran’s largest European trading partner. There is also almost a blind faith in the transformative potential of trade and the penetration of Western capital, ideas and expertise to open-up Iran to the outside world and progressively lead the Iranian regime toward a less radical path.
McMaster is also seen in Europe as the quintessential Iran hawk, a pro-Israel US military man with an unfounded grudge against Iran’s mullahs and the revolutionary guards. Particularly since the US invasion of Iraq, the case for which was built on fabricated grounds, and George W. Bush’s neo-con administration’s infamous “axis of evil” that included Iran, any alarms about Iran’s regional activities are quickly dismissed in Europe as scaremongering. If warning calls about the threat posed by Iran come from an American, the label of pro-Israeli hawk is usually applied. If the expressions of concern come from an Arab government, it is interpreted as an attempt at diversion from internal problems.
The US national security advisor’s warning comes, however, at a critical juncture. A series of regional developments outside the scope of the nuclear deal are vindicating numerous concerns raised about Iran’s regional policies by Washington, Tel Aviv, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, among others. This may lead Europe to meet Washington half-way.
Western allies have a chance to bridge their divide, strengthen the opposition to a nuclear-armed Iran and increase the diplomatic and economic costs of Tehran’s destructive policies in the region.
Dr. Manuel Almeida
In southern Syria, tensions between the pro-Iranian camp comprising thousands of Shiite militias from Lebanon to Afghanistan are at serious risk of escalating into another open conflict, but this time of greater scale and potential destructive impact than previous instances of war between Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Israeli forces. The Iran-backed genocidal Assad regime has resumed the relentless bombing of densely populated areas and another massacre of civilians is building up in Ghouta. A UN Panel of Experts recently determined that Iran failed to comply with the arms embargo imposed by UN Security Council Resolution 2216 by failing to stop its ballistic missiles reaching Houthi militias in Yemen.
Then there is the May 12 deadline set by the Trump administration to reach an agreement with the EU3 (Britain, France and Germany). On Jan. 12, President Donald Trump announced that the US would pursue a “new supplemental agreement” with key European allies “that would impose new multilateral sanctions if Iran develops or tests long-range missiles, thwarts inspections, or makes progress toward a nuclear weapon.” According to a Reuters report last week, the Trump administration is particularly keen on a follow-up agreement to the nuclear deal of 2015 that looks into Iran’s development and testing of long-range missiles, strengthens inspection powers by the International Atomic Energy Agency and addresses the flaws of the current “sunset clause” on the lifting of restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program after 2025.The European reaction to US demarches has so far been mixed. A working group between Americans and Europeans was set up to address these matters, but no concrete measures have come out of it yet. At the time of its formation, this working group was largely seen as a European move to smooth US concerns without any significant concessions.
Senior British and French officials have recently warned Iran about its regional conduct. President Emmanuel Macron of France suggested placing Tehran’s controversial ballistic missile program under international surveillance, and Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson urged Iran “to cease activity which risks escalating the conflict and to support a political solution to the conflict in Yemen.” Last week, Britain (in concert with the US and France) drafted a UN Security Council resolution condemning Iran for its role in the Yemen war.
Yet Denis Chaibi, the head of the Iranian task force at the EU’s External Action Service, has recently reaffirmed previous warnings by other European officials that they would block any move by the US to reimpose sanctions on Iran. Tehran has also reacted to these moves by threatening last week via its deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, to withdraw from the nuclear deal if it sees no economic benefit and continues to be treated with suspicion by major banks.
It would be in no one’s interests to see the US walk away from the deal, but the current moment could also be an opportunity. Americans and Europeans have another chance to bridge their divide, strengthen the opposition to a nuclear-armed Iran via multilateral mechanisms, and increase the diplomatic and economic costs of Tehran’s destructive policies in the region.
• Dr. Manuel Almeida is a political analyst and consultant focusing on the Middle East. He is the former editor of the English online edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science. Twitter: @_ManuelAlmeida