Is a compromise possible between the Europeans and Trump on Iran nuclear deal?

The Europeans are willing to address objectionable Iranian issues.
Thursday 15/02/2018
German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel (L) talks with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Washington, last year. (AP)
German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel (L) talks with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Washington, last year. (AP)

At first glance, US President Donald Trump and the Europeans appear to be diametrically opposed on the issue of the Iran nuclear deal.

Trump has repeatedly denigrated it while the Europeans, who helped to negotiate the agreement, have said it should remain in place because the Iranians are adhering to the deal and pulling out would set back progress that has been made.

In a January 11 statement after a meeting that included Iran’s foreign minister and the foreign ministers of Britain, Germany, France plus the EU foreign policy chief, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said: “We agree on this approach. We want to protect [the nuclear deal] against every possible decision that might undermine it.”

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini added: “The deal is delivering on its main goal of keeping the Iranian nuclear programme in check and under close surveillance.”

Those messages were clearly aimed at Trump, who was weighing whether to reimpose oil sanctions on Iran that were removed as part of the deal. If the sanctions were reimposed, Iran said it would no longer adhere to its part of the deal and could restart its nuclear programme.

This unified position by the Europeans seems to have worked. On January 12, Trump signed a waiver on sanctioning Iran as required under current US law to keep the nuclear deal alive but he warned that it would be the last time he would do so unless the US Congress and the Europeans “fix the flaws” in the nuclear deal.

“I have outlined two possible paths forward,” Trump said. “Either fix the deal’s disastrous flaws or the United States will withdraw.”

These “flaws” in the deal, the Trump administration said, include its sunset clauses, some of which expire in a decade, as well as Iran’s ability to develop its ballistic missile programme.

Interestingly, in his State of the Union address on January 30, Trump was silent on his demands of the Europeans and only asked Congress to “address the fundamental flaws in the terrible Iran nuclear deal.”

Was the fact that he did not mention the Europeans a deliberate signal of a US-European rapprochement on the issue? If so, who was behind it?

It seems that there may have been some lobbying of Trump by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defence James Mattis to ease up on Europeans and not to threaten to scuttle the nuclear deal.

Both Tillerson and Mattis know that Iran has been complying with the deal as detailed in numerous reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency and that the Europeans are opposed to doing anything that could wreck the agreement. They seem to understand that pulling out of the deal could not only lead to a possible military confrontation with Tehran, which no one wants, but could hinder the international community from striking a deal with North Korea.

Tillerson and Mattis seemingly convinced Trump last August to certify Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal even after Trump publicly complained that Iran was not living up to the “spirit” of the deal. Two months later, Trump did “de-certify” the deal but he essentially punted the issue to the US Congress, which, because of its non-action, has kept the deal alive.

The Washington Post reported on February 7 that Mattis last year resisted Trump’s request for US military options against Iran, not wanting to present him with something that he could possibly use.

Despite Trump’s tough talk against the Iran nuclear deal, there may be room for compromise. In January, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian stated that, while the nuclear deal should stand, as is, “we do not hide other disagreements [with Iran]… in the ballistic [missile] field and over Iran’s actions in the whole region.”

That sentiment is probably shared by the other Europeans. They are willing to compartmentalise the Iran portfolio and are willing to work with the United States to pressure Tehran on ballistic missiles and its regional activities as long as Washington does not scuttle the nuclear deal. To perhaps sweeten such a compromise, the Europeans did not criticise Trump’s recent decision to sanction 14 Iranian individuals and companies, some for involvement in recent human rights abuses against Iranian protesters.

Whether Tillerson and Mattis can keep Trump from wrecking the nuclear deal is an open question but, with the Europeans willing to address objectionable Iranian issues outside of the nuclear file, perhaps there is a formula that will keep Trump from going off the deep end.