Iran and the West: Can Europe restrain the US?

The EU seems to be the only major power willing to stand up to the US on Iran. But does it have the strength to do so?

Trump Merkel
The EU has opposed US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal [File: Jesco Denzel/German Federal Government via AP]

The schism between the United States and Europe over Iran bears the hallmarks of their friction over Iraq prior to the 2003 US-led invasion. Their current dispute is mainly over means not ends, but could have major implications for transatlantic relations and the Middle East.  

Both the US and the EU would like to see the Ayatollahs’ Iran contained and constrained, preferably under new leadership – just as they wanted to see Saddam Hussein’s Iraq before 2003 – but as in the past, they disagree on how to go about it. To put it simply, it is a dispute over “carrots or sticks” – or whether to bring Iran to its senses or bring it to its knees.

The Europeans want to compel the Islamic Republic to change its behaviour using trade and investments in accordance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), while the US wants to coerce it into a much more debilitating deal through tough sanctions and the threat of force.

But to paraphrase Mohamed ElBaradei, the former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran is no “donkey” to be managed with carrots and sticks. It is a defiant regional power that demands a US u-turn on sanctions, an apology, and respect.

As the crisis deepens, the disagreements between the US and Europe are also worsening in tone and substance. 

Europe, ‘the hypocrite

The Trump administration does not see eye-to-eye with the EU on several issues.

First, it argues that the JCPOA was a terrible deal negotiated in haste to serve as President Barack Obama’s foreign policy legacy, rather than to ensure nuclear-free Iran. The deal allowed the Islamic Republic to expand its regional reach and subsidised Iranian “support for terrorism” and the destabilisation of Washington’s Arab allies – so the argument goes.

Second, the Trump administration believes that even though the deal is the culmination of multilateral diplomacy, multilateralism is no substitute for “doing the right thing”. It has demonstrated it values international agreements and institutions only when these serve its policies and interests. The Trump administration, therefore, insists that any country that trades with Iran must pay the price for aiding and abetting an “evil” “state sponsor of terror”. It has gone as far as comparing a diplomatic approach to Iran to the appeasement of Nazi Germany.

Third, Washington considers the Europeans hypocrites or ungrateful “free-riders”, who criticise US power, while benefiting from US military protection. It sees European caution as weakness: America acts because it can, Europe rails because it can’t. In other words, Europe prefers carrots only because it lacks the big sticks.

From the viewpoint of the Trump administration, if the Europeans are serious about having a say, they need to put their money where their mouth is, i.e. increase their military spending to at least meet their NATO commitments. If the EU expects the US to act when crises blow up in Asia, the Middle East or even in its own front and back yards, (say, in Kosovo or Libya), it is up to Washington to decide the when and the how, and it is up to Brussels to keep up or shut up. 

America, ‘the bully’

Europe obviously has a rather different perspective on these issues.

First, the Europeans believe that the Iran nuclear deal, while not perfect, fulfilled its mandate. It ensured Iran would not become a “nuclear state” and encouraged a change in behaviour. They argue that whatever Washington believes is missing, such as provisions on Iran’s missile programme and its controversial regional policies, can be negotiated separately.

Why throw away a deal that the IAEA certifies has been working, when it could be strengthened and supplemented with additional protocols or agreements? Now that the US insists on going at it alone, it will have less leverage to pressure Tehran to come back to the table without the help of its European allies.

Second, the EU sees the JCPOA as a successful multilateral effort that could set a precedent for reaching non-proliferation and other agreements in the future. By walking away from the deal and punishing those who honour it, the Trump administration is alienating its allies and setting a different kind of precedent: one that encourages other powers to act unilaterally and withdraw from important international accords, which could have damaging implications for world peace and security.

The Europeans want to see the US lead by the power of its example, not by an example of its power. They would like to see it honour its commitments, not for Iran’s sake, but rather for the sake of maintaining and strengthening an international rules-based system, the Western substitute of the more neutral “international law”. 

Third, the Europeans, who admit to and even boast of learning from the horrors of at least two centuries of war, are troubled by a US refusal to learn from its own bitter experiences. Since World War II, the US has embarked on major wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, none of which have ended well, let alone in victory. And still, the US continues to act like a “hyper-power”, insisting on being the world’s self-appointed sheriff.

Brussels hopes President Donald Trump is pursuing a new deal not a new war, but his senior administration officials may be itching to teach Iran a lesson by forcing it to make an impossible choice between total surrender and total defeat. The Trump administration’s reliance on the coercive power of its military and economic dominance and its use of the same prisms and pretexts as the Bush administration in 2003 could push the crisis down a slippery slope towards confrontation – one that promises to be far more costly than the Iraq war.

And it may have already started.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s warning on Iran following the recent alleged attacks on two Saudi tankers has further irked Europe and left transatlantic relations severely strained. There are already reports that Washington is blaming Iran for the attacks and is considering the possibility of deploying 120,000 soldiers to the Gulf. Parallels are already being drawn with the Gulf of Tonkin crisis, when in 1964 the US government manufactured a military incident to deceive Congress and the public and justify its direct involvement in the Vietnam war.

Two sides of the same West

The bickering over Iran is only the latest of a series of crises and tensions that have been building up between the two sides of the Atlantic since the end of the Cold War. The EU and the US still have a lot in common, certainly more than they do with Russia or China, but they have been at odds over a growing number of issues, including the Middle East, Russian resurgence, weapons proliferation and climate change.

As Europe asserts its global role mainly through its soft power and the US backs out of its global responsibilities while doubling down on its hard power, the gulf in transatlantic relations will only grow. While an exacerbated Iran crisis would damage but not break off US-EU relations, it could detonate the Middle East, if no one intervenes to stop the escalation. Unfortunately, both China and Russia – the other two signatories of the JCPOA – have so far tried to “pass the buck” hoping the other would stand up to the US over its economic sanctions and military deployment to the Gulf.

This has left the EU trying on its own to salvage its huge investment in the deal with Iran. But assuming that Brussels could summon the will to act, it still lacks the means. It suffers from far too many internal divisions, disputes and crises to be able to stand up to the US. Even the French-German axis which held and advanced the cause of a united Europe for decades looks shakier than ever.

So far the EU has failed to stop the US from launching a diplomatic offensive, a deception campaign, a public relations assault, an economic and psychological war on Iran. And, alas, there is no indication it can stop the Trump administration from taking its anti-Iran campaign to the next level. 

This may be another case of US cooking up dinner and leaving Europe to wash the dishes.