It is your friends who cause you grief
I have to admit, as a former UK minister of state for the Middle East, that the US does not always make the life of its good friends that easy. Presidential musings precede a regular pattern of comments or decisions that have taken us off guard, leading to worries about consistency of policy that can, in the US phrase, “turn on a dime” overnight.
Sudden announcements of troop pull-outs, as in Syria, or the moving of the American Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem — a sovereign decision of the US but with immense ramifications — have fitted a narrative of uncertainty in the region that has unnerved European partners.
But being accused by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo of “siding with the ayatollahs,” for not taking the US view of re-imposing sanctions against Iran under an agreement from which America had walked away, was a new low.
It might play well in Kansas but less so in Berlin, which is facing a suddenly announced reduction of 12,000 American troops, or London, where relations are already strained by an ongoing argument over diplomatic immunity given to a government employee accused of an accident in which a young motorcyclist lost his life, and for which the official refuses, backed by the US government, to return to the UK for trial.
Policy differences between the US and EU over Iran have been laid bare by the current row over whether or not the current UN arms embargo should be continued, and whether sanctions, eased under the nuclear deal — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — should be “snapped back” for non-compliance.
There can be no claim of lack of consistency in this instance. President Donald Trump made clear he hated the JCPOA in campaigning for the presidency, and followed up by withdrawing the US in 2018 despite strong misgivings and opposition from its other participants, but particularly the E3 — the UK, France and Germany.
They were left high and dry trying to continue a joint, previously agreed policy of nuclear containment of Iran against the background of a bargain of the easing of economic sanctions in return for continued compliance as certified by the most rigorous inspection regime conducted by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The economic element of this was effectively crippled by the American withdrawal and the re-imposition of its economic pressure, which affected companies far beyond the US, and left the E3 in an impossible position in trying to maintain an internationally agreed and UN-supported deal with an Iran not slow to fasten upon legal affronts.
Attempting this while at the same time continuing its own pressure on Iran via EU human rights and economic sanctions, and after a clear E3 statement about its UN decision based on “the need to uphold the authority and integrity of the UN Security Council and to advance regional security and stability,” does not deserve the tag of “siding with the ayatollahs.”
The deficiencies of the JCPOA, the debate over what was and was not possible to agree, and the issues surrounding Iran’s malevolent activity in the region are well documented, and none of the E3 are blind to these, nor inactive in taking steps against them. But in a region bristling with arms and complex confrontations, the need for agreed steps, firm agreements and the mutual confidence of US partners in Europe and, above all, in the region itself is paramount.
Raising the temperature at the UN, and picking a fight with friends against the backdrop of the most divisive US election in a generation, simply convinces observers that the drive on policy is more about domestic politics than the difficulties of a region inextricably linked to the US through successive governments and their decisions.
Recent decisions suggest the UK will continue to decide matters for itself on the merits of argument, from the JCPOA to Israel / Palestine.
Two issues of note must be factored in, however. From January 2021, the UK leaves the EU. Where will this leave the E3? Look out for the UK wanting to remain close to its European partners for many reasons, as much as the US. Recent decisions suggest the UK will continue to decide matters for itself on the merits of argument, from the JCPOA to Israel / Palestine and use its diplomatic reach for the best outcomes in the region.
But secondly, the elephant in the room for the UK and the EU will be to demonstrate that its approach to Iran pays some dividend in terms of movement from Tehran, as envisaged by the JCPOA, away from its destructive forward defense policy of destabilization, to something more positive for its own people and the region as a whole. At present, there is precious little evidence of success, either of maximum pressure or any alternative.
After the US election in November, fresh thinking must be a priority for all. The West might start by listening more to the region most affected by current policy, and whose peoples need some relief from the fears of conflict all too real at present.
- Alistair Burt is a former UK MP who has twice held ministerial positions in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office — as parliamentary undersecretary of state from 2010 to 2013, and as minister of state for the Middle East from 2017 to 2019. Twitter: @AlistairBurtUK