While the Trump administration stocks up on Iran hawks like John Bolton, the new national security adviser, and Mike Pompeo as secretary of state, an impending collapse of the Iran nuclear deal could rapidly turn into a new global reality: further isolation of the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel as the rest of the world works on converting Iran into a positive force in the Middle East.
But will these steep political costs to the US cause the Trump team to rethink its course?
The track to an impasse between the US and the rest of the world is set: President Donald Trump’s Jan. 12 announcement of a 120-day deadline for European partners to come up with a path to fix the “disastrous flaws” of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, is unlikely to yield any proposals.
Based on the statements of European leaders and foreign ministers, it is safe to assume that they will not renege on their obligations or commitments under either the JCPOA or UN Resolution 2231, which authorized the Iran nuclear deal. Trump will be forced to ask for and probably receive from the US Congress either a revocation or an amendment to the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, which governs America’s implementation of the JCPOA.
These actions will open the path to unilateral resumption of US nonproliferation sanctions on Iran, perhaps happening by late May. Given US engineering on the collapse of the JCPOA, it is unlikely that other members of the United Nations Security Council — including the permanent members — will agree to reactivate UN nonproliferation sanctions on Iran.
How the possible standoff in the Council will be resolved is anybody’s guess.
Maintaining credibility with international treaties is particularly important to the three European participants to the nuclear deal, Britain France and Germany (E3) and, of course, to their chief negotiator, Federica Mogherini. Other important institutional and legal constraints will force these parties to spread their protective wings over the Iran nuclear deal while asserting priorities on their trans-Atlantic partnership with the US.
One area of immediate concern is how the many European companies that are heavily invested in new business ventures with Iran can shield themselves against possible fines from the US Office of Foreign Assets Control and the risk of being shunned by US equity and credit markets. Mogherini is working on preparing euro-denominated credit lines to be made available to European-based enterprises affected by US sanctions “in case it will be needed to protect European interests in case other decisions are taken elsewhere,” she said, according to The Guardian.
France’s state-owned investment bank, Bpifrance, already has a euro-denominated credit program granting up to 500 million euros a year per creditor. Nicolas Dufourcq, the chief executive, left no illusions about the purpose of these new facilities in an interview with Le Journal du Dimanche, saying, “We are the only French bank that can do it without risking U.S. sanctions for a possible breach of remaining embargo rules.”
Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s former foreign minister, was an early thinker about the broader geopolitical consequences for Germany and the European Union.
“Europe cannot allow a U.S. strategy to succeed in turning us into economic opponents or maybe even enemies,” he told a gathering of German entrepreneurs on Jan. 10, 2018. On the other hand, legal certainty for the German economy cannot “only exist if it submits to American rules of competition” under America First policies.
To Gabriel’s mind, Europe must practice weltpolitikfähig — a term often used to describe a unified and self-interested European foreign policy that succeeds globally. Specifically, Gabriel planned ahead for self-interested, pre-emptive European sanctions on Iran. Gabriel’s successor, Heiko Maas, is also promoting the same approach as he recently advocated during his visit to Amman, Jordan, for a “firewall” between the nuclear deal and Iran’s other activities.
With his French and British counterparts, Gabriel presented an Iran-sanctions agenda for discussion among the 28 European Union members in mid-January. The proposals envision unilateral European sanctions on Iran for the proliferation of ballistic missile development and deployment; financial support to and operational control of Hezbollah; and, finally, violations of human rights of Iranian protesters and women’s rights activists.
While these three concerns may appear to be identical to those raised by Trump, the discussion in Europe is evolving along different policy objectives. Rather than accepting the prevailing US view that Iran is a brutal theocratic tyrant, Europeans see a complicated mix of democratic institutions caught in reformist struggles with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and other radicals overseen by supreme, religious leaders. Beyond the central policy point that European sanctions should support democracy, European Union members are considering the pros and cons of future Iran sanctions.
Iran’s ballistic missile development and their alleged use by Houthi insurgents in Yemen provide a good example of how the European Union navigates the Iranian challenge. With massive deliveries of the most advanced American and British missile and antimissile technologies to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Israel, it is difficult to argue against Iran’s missile arsenal.
Yet that is precisely what Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s foreign minister, tried to convey in a statement released before his Tehran visit in early March, saying, “On ballistics, the Iranian program is not compatible with (the resolution).”
What he meant was not elaborated on by the Quai d’Orsay, the foreign ministry, indicating that the statement was merely a test of Iran’s resilience. But all JCPOA participants know that the missile issue was intensely discussed during the negotiations and that Iran prevailed because of its legitimate sovereign rights to self-defense.
These rights, however, are only half the problem. Iran’s ballistic missile development and command falls under the Aerospace Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or Quds. Denying missile technology to extremist elites is certainly well within European strategic interests. Since no one can exclude the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles that could reach Europe and the US, applying sanctions now makes even more sense.
Some Europeans think they should initiate separate negotiations to compel Iran to accept a reduced ballistic missile range of no more than 2000 kilometers, or about 1,240 miles. This range is deemed sufficient for Iran’s justification to maintain credible deterrence in its unruly neighborhood, while remaining far short of reaching Europe.
Should Iran not agree to such demands, Europe could adopt narrower sanctions on those individuals who are most responsible for Iran’s missile program. The coercive effect would, however, be limited: 20 missile-relevant companies and government entities and many of their senior managers are already targeted by an asset freeze and travel ban under the still-valid UN Resolution 2231.
This essay is the second of a three-part series on the Iran nuclear deal, under the rubric of our new P5 Monitor column, which looks at the behavior of the Security Council’s permanent-five members: Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States. Here is the first essay in the three-part series. Please send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment in the section under the article. — PassBlue editors