Preventing the United States from collapsing the Iran nuclear deal may be impossible, but European and other global leaders are still ensuring that the Trump team knows the political costs that it will incur if it sticks to that goal.
European opponents of Donald Trump’s Iran manipulations, far from floppy handwringers, are motivated by genuine security concerns over the further destabilization of the Middle East; the possible takeover of the moderate Iranian institutions and the presidency by hardliners; and the resumption of the “full-scale nuclear work,” as the head of Iran’s atomic energy organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, has threatened to do many times in recent weeks.
As Federica Mogherini, the European Union foreign affairs executive, also said multiple times, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is “vital for our collective security — in the European Union, in the region and beyond.”
However, European Union sanctions policymakers, based in Brussels, are ready to contend with Iranian recalcitrance on non-nuclear issues. Key areas of likely European intervention include focusing on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ control of Iran’s ballistic missile program; the military adventures of Hezbollah in Syria; Iranian hardliners who disregard the rights of Iranian protesters; and violations of international humanitarian law by Iranian operatives in Syria.
The governments of Britain, France and Germany, parties to the Iran nuclear deal, have prepared sanctions contingencies for European-wide consideration on these matters as well. The overarching theme, though, is not to target Iran as a nation but to go after hardline Guard Corps leaders who are responsible for threats to national and international peace and security.
European sanctions policymakers have already identified the hardliners as pivotal Iranian financial and operational supporters to Hezbollah. Unlike longstanding Israeli and US claims, Europeans do not perceive Hezbollah as a monolithic terrorist organization.
In Lebanon, for example, Hezbollah has evolved into a formidable political party. After the devastating Lebanese-Israel war of 2006-2007, Hezbollah has played an important role in rebuilding southern Lebanon with substantial Iranian financial support. Among many Europeans, the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah is proof of Iran’s stabilizing influence in the region.
Nevertheless, the other Hezbollah reality is that paramilitary units under the purview of senior officers in the Guard Corps are fighting alongside the homicidal forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Recognizing Hezbollah’s range and diversity, Europeans are treading lightly when it comes to sanctions against the group. Risking disruption of Lebanon’s fragile political balance and potentially unleashing refugee streams into Eastern Europe is as unacceptable as doing nothing about Syria’s humanitarian mess.
The European Union found a solution in 2013 with its Solomonic division of Hezbollah into an acceptable civilian branch and the Hezbollah military wing, to which Europe’s Regulation 714 imposes targeted measures. As to Iranian operatives in Syria, Europe’s Decision 2013/255/CSFP targets sanctions against senior officers of the Guard Corps who coordinate support for Hezbollah.
New European Union sanctions on the Guard Corps leaders are also being considered for their systematic human-rights abuses during the most recent wave of Iranian protests, including the rights of women. The protests started in late December in Iran’s second-largest city, Mashad, and spread across dozens of cities and towns.
Women’s protests against the law that they must wear the hijab and other discriminatory measures further accentuated divisions among moderate and radical Iranian politicians. While the disproportionate use of violence and mass arrests by security forces was not as pronounced as they were during the Green Movement’s protests in 2009, at least 20 protesters were killed during the January 2018 unrest — fewer than the number of people killed by Israel so far during Palestinian protests in Gaza this month.
Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, used the Iranian killings to call for a special meeting of the Security Council, where she hoped to discuss the “situation in the Middle East.” Her call to condemn the government of Iran, however, was quickly contradicted by most delegations in the Council.
François Delattre, the French ambassador to the UN, took the lead when he said at the meeting, “However worrying the events of the past two days in Iran may be, they do not constitute per se a threat to international peace and security.”
Even though European members of the Council did not support Haley’s line of argument, European sanctions policymakers view with great concern Iran’s disregard of human rights and international humanitarian law in its treatment of protesters and dissidents. At the same time, nobody in Brussels wants to obstruct pragmatists and reformers like Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, who is promoting a Citizens’ Rights Charter, which includes nonbinding articles for the protection of civil liberties.
The European solution remains pragmatic: to increase sanctions begun in April 2011, starting with Council Regulation No. 359, as well as numerous amendments targeting human-rights abusers in Iran. The sanctions also include prohibitions on the export to Iran of telecommunications monitoring equipment for use by the regime. In addition, targeting further security and Guard Corps officials and an embargo on technology are being considered to strengthen such measures.
European politicians deem the expansion of European Union sanctions partly as a way to counteract US advocates who want to revise or revoke the Iran nuclear deal. British politicians, in particular, seem to be holding high hopes that European sanctions will dissuade Trump from tearing up the JCPOA.
Yet British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson told Parliament members, according to The Guardian, that he was “not absolutely certain which way the president is going to go.”
Days later, with the replacement of Rex Tillerson by Mike Pompeo as US secretary of state and the appointment of John Bolton as US national security adviser, Europeans see confirmation that their own unilateral action may the best strategy to manage problems presented by both the US and Iran to Europe’s national economic and security interests.
This essay is the final post in 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. The first essay in the series focused on the criticisms that President Trump is reciting to revoke the Iran deal; the second essay focused on Europe’s readiness to protect the deal. Please send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment in the section under the article. – PassBlue editors