Iran nuclear deal may end up shrinking EU’s political clout

Iran nuclear deal may end up shrinking EU’s political clout

Time is running out for the European Union to salvage the Iran nuclear deal following this month’s decision by US President Donald Trump to unilaterally pull his country out of the 2015 agreement. The foreign ministers of France, Britain, Germany and the EU have been holding talks with their Iranian counterpart, Mohammed Javad Zarif, to find ways around a major hurdle to the survival of the deal: Sweeping US economic sanctions. 

 European companies, already tense and hesitant to invest in Iran even before Trump's decision, cannot afford to fall victim to US sanctions. And without European economic assurances, Tehran will have no incentive to stick to its side of the bargain.

Since Trump took office, the rift between America and its European allies has been widening. The maverick US president, whose populist rhetoric has mobilized millions of mainly disenchanted white voters, has presented unconventional positions on free trade, climate change, NATO, Russia, the Palestine question and now Iran. On almost all of these issues he has held a starkly dissimilar stand than that of the EU and most European countries.

But his position on the Iran deal, negotiated painstakingly over several years, with the Obama administration taking the lead and making it its primary foreign policy goal, is now proving to be the biggest challenge to the decades-old transatlantic alliance. The two sides have little in common regarding the benefits of keeping the deal intact. Last-minute attempts to influence the US position, especially during French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to the White House last month, failed. Trump not only exited the agreement, but his newly appointed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week outlined 12 conditions that Iran must meet before the US would consider entering a new deal. Any new agreement would also limit Iran’s ballistic missile program and roll back its regional ambitions, including its presence in Syria and Iraq and its backing of Houthi rebels in Yemen, not to mention its support of Hezbollah and other militant groups.

Pompeo promised to “apply unprecedented financial pressure on the Iranian regime… The strongest sanctions in history.” As expected, these conditions were rejected by Tehran.

The hardline US position has put unprecedented pressure on the Europeans and the Iranians. It is unlikely that the EU’s attempt to update its anti-sanctions laws and introduce new mechanisms to allow direct financial transfers from the European Central Bank to its counterpart in Tehran will work. In an interconnected economic environment, multinational companies rely heavily on US-made components and technologies. 

Regardless of how the Iranian regime reacts and what repercussions its attitude will have on the region, the US-EU rift is now a reality.

Osama Al Sharif

The EU is considering a series of measures that include banning EU-based firms from complying with the revived US sanctions, but for that to happen it needs the unanimous support of the union’s 28 members. That looks difficult to achieve, but even if the deal is saved, for now, its benefits to Iran will be short-lived. 

Regardless of how the Iranian regime reacts and what repercussions its attitude will have on the region, the US-EU rift is now a reality. President of the European Council Donald Tusk warned last week that the US is a bad friend that acts with “capricious assertiveness.” He told reporters that Europe had to be prepared to go it alone and that the US was an unreliable ally.

Europe cannot, of course, afford to lose US patronage and protection. Last week, Macron told Russian President Vladimir Putin that Europe remains committed to its security and defense alliance with the US despite recent disagreements over trade, the Iran nuclear deal and other issues. 

 The Iran deal may result in internal fractures within an already stressed EU. Last week, Poland’s Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz underlined the growing differences within the EU over the issue. He said: “During discussions, we will emphasize the need to consider the motives of the United States and a greater empathy towards them.”

The EU’s potential failure in saving the Iran deal will result not only in further internal divisions, but may limit its independence from the US, thus weakening its political standing in the world and the region. It may prove further that, while the EU is an economic giant, it remains a political dwarf on the world stage. That has been evident in Europe’s historical inability to influence the US position on the Palestinian issue. 

One thing that Trump’s unilateral foreign policy tendencies will underline is that the EU needs the US, and its attempt to chart an independent course is unlikely to succeed in the near future.

  • Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010


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