Why appeasing Iran is the road to disaster
Sometimes I wish Iran, like Brexit, would just disappear from the headlines. Neither subject adds to what that great Englishman, Dr Johnson, called the gaiety of nations. And their constant presence in the news simply reminds us that something somewhere is wrong, even if we can’t agree on exactly what that might be.
There is, of course, a difference, especially if you speak to Europeans. Many will say that Brexit is a moment of madness, that the EU needs to stand firm in the face of outrageous British behaviour, that the Irish backstop is a mark of the EU’s resolve not to be blackmailed or to abandon one of its smaller member states, and that if it all goes wrong the responsibility will be entirely British.
Yet if you talk about Iran, the mood changes. For many in the EU, Iran, which has a 40-year record of sponsoring violence and terror internationally, executing or assassinating those among its own citizens who disagreed with the country’s direction of travel, subverting or suborning its neighbours, harboring members of Al-Qaeda, attacking shipping and now refusing to cooperate with IAEA monitoring, is simply a victim and needs to be accommodated. The real villain is the US.
I had a baffling conversation the other day with a senior EU diplomat about the recent case of the Iranian tanker detained in Gibraltar and the retaliatory Iranian action in seizing the Stena Impero. In mild exasperation my former colleague asked me why we — the British — hadn’t simply ignored the fact that the Iranians were flouting the EU’s own prohibition on oil sales to Syria. After all, everyone else did.
It’s hard to know where to start with all this. Britain — because in a very close referendum a small majority wanted to leave the EU — is to be treated as a suitable case for disciplinary action and every single word of every single document ever signed scrutinised and enforced. But Iran — which has been one of the central problems in international relations since 1979 (and, some would say, before that) and has sought to export violence to the streets of Europe — is to be given the benefit of the doubt, and any punitive EU measures simply ignored or discreetly palliated.
You can see the same syndrome at work in a recent posting on Jadaliyya, a website devoted to a relentlessly progressivist reading of Middle Eastern and North African issues, which criticizes US commentators for offering their opinions on Iran without the necessary linguistic or cultural expertise. Behind this lies an old rivalry between universities and think-tanks. It represents among other things a claim that understanding arises principally from linguistic and cultural competence, and it is this that produces empathy and therefore better policy.
Yet much Washington commentary is actually about the appropriate US policy response to observable Iranian actions and policy pronouncements. It’s not clear that empathy is in question here. And when Americans who do speak Persian dare to comment, they are often attacked as administration stooges. When I myself delivered a long piece for Policy Exchange in 2017 about the ways in which too many supporters of political Islamism and their followers distort history, I was actually attacked for knowing too much — but in the wrong, unpermitted way. You can’t win.
And here we come to President Macron’s recent generous offer to Tehran to establish a $15bn time-limited line of credit in return for full compliance with the terms of the JCPOA. This is an elaboration of the idea on which the EU has long been working, of providing a mechanism to allow Iran to continue to trade with Europe without using US dollars. It is also the latest in a series of attempted inducements offered to Iran by France and other European states to resist the temptation to overreact to the US sanctions squeeze.
Now I’m all in favour of diplomacy. I admire the creativity, expertise and persistence which the French have undoubtedly demonstrated, especially at a time when a new European Commission is bedding in and politics elsewhere in the EU are in turmoil. And there has been a degree of attempted coordination with the US that suggests at least the possibility of collective action. But every time Paris or the EU as a whole offer an incentive to Iran or suggest — however quietly — that they can act as mediators between Tehran and Washington, the Iranians do something provocative and the White House dismisses the idea. On this occasion the Iranians announced that they were removing all restrictions on their research activities and the enrichment of uranium.
Any sign of weakness only encourages Tehran to seek more concessions. They are playing Europe — not the reverse. But their real goal is Washington.
Sir John Jenkins
President Trump, who has certainly toyed publicly with the idea of meeting President Rouhani, has said he needs no help; a meeting will happen only if Iran is prepared to give up its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile ambitions. And Rouhani has said he will meet the US only as part of a multilateral process if (essentially) Iran is allowed to do a lot of what it likes.
And this is all part of a larger picture. During Javad Zarif’s visit to Moscow a few days ago, the Russian press announced that Moscow was prepared to hold joint naval exercises with Tehran and allow the use of Russian ports for the shipment of some Iranian oil exports. The Iranians have just revealed an agreement with Beijing for an additional $280bn of Chinese investment in Iran’s energy infrastructure. And they continue to develop an ingenious system of dark funding for their economy through the IRGC, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Venezuela and other parts of South America and indeed Africa.
This is all suboptimal. It reflects a degree of global political fragmentation that is not irreversible but gives opportunists a chance to exploit. In all of this, Europe, which needs global order to thrive, is a player — but a minor and sometimes reluctant one, given intra-EU divisions. The big prize for Iran remains the US. But it’s not at all clear that Tehran actually wants a deal with Washington, certainly while it sees a chance instead to divide the US from Europe, Russia and China. It wants instead to sow division and define the terms of victory. In order to secure this it is willing to allow other historic enemies — such as Russia or Turkey (where Erdogan now says he wants a nuclear weapons capability too) — to benefit.
It may be willing to allow the Iranian energy economy to become a constituent part of the One Belt, One Road project that leads inexorably to Chinese hegemony across Central Asia. And — like Vladimir Putin — it is happy to exploit European rivalries in order to exacerbate splits within the EU and accelerate a drift away from the historic, if sometimes strained, Atlanticist posture of European political elites. That way lies disaster. Whatever Euro-optimists may claim, Europe needs the US as its principal partner for the foreseeable future. In all this it is Iran that is the minor player. Yet some European policy elites still seem to treat the issue as a choice between Iran and Washington.
It bears constant repeating that this is not the case, nor is it about Donald Trump. There may well be profound changes afoot in US domestic politics, as they are in different ways elsewhere. And it is hard to argue that this administration has helped the cause of collective action with its transactional unpredictability. But this can be exaggerated: Secretary Pompeo’s unwillingness to sign off on a so-called peace deal in Afghanistan that allows the Taliban essentially to do what they want perhaps sheds an interesting light on the limits of US willingness to disengage internationally.
And what has not changed are the fundamental geopolitical realities of shared security and economic interests and an ideological and political commonality that has lasted centuries. Europe needs to seek to ensure the US stays engaged, not simply abandon the central ideas of international order on which the post-1945 world was built because they don’t like it when a President starts behaving like the Wizard of Oz (which is pretty rich when you consider Iranian behaviour).
And any sign of weakness only encourages Tehran to seek more concessions. They are playing Europe — not the reverse. But their real goal is Washington. It is always possible that negotiations between Iran and the US will resume at some point. There are rumors of a Trump-Rouhani meeting at the UN in New York at the end of September. But for this to happen and be productive, Tehran must be convinced that the West will stay united.
While we wait, the wheels of war grind slowly but inexorably toward more conflict in southern Syria and the Gulf. Even the recent black comedy about fake Israeli casualties on the Golan was a part of this. As the Roman politician Cato saw over 2,000 years ago, strength, resolve and unity are the only sure guarantors of peace.
The real moral of President Macron’s $15bn is that Europe risks being side-lined when the choices get tougher. Because when they do, it really will be a question of who stands where, not who is willing to pay for the privilege of bribing Iran to de-escalate and then finding it won’t. And a Europe that wants to face all ways will find itself irrelevant.
- Sir John Jenkins is a senior fellow at Policy Exchange. Until December 2017, he was Corresponding Director (Middle East) at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), based in Manama, Bahrain and was a Senior Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. He was the British ambassador to Saudi Arabia until January 2015