Is Europe aligning more closely with US on Iran?

After registering more than 10% GDP growth in 2016-17, Iran is facing recession and the rial has lost 70% of its value in the past year.
Sunday 09/12/2018
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) and European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini speak at a meeting in Brussels, last July. (Reuters)
Smiles and variables. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) and European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini speak at a meeting in Brussels, last July. (Reuters)

Europe’s balancing act between the United States and Iran is coming under increasing strain as the Trump administration tightens sanctions and Tehran continues its controversial missile programme.

A closed-door discussion at the UN Security Council was requested by France and the United Kingdom after Iran’s December 1 test of a Khorramshahr missile with a range of 2,000-2,220km.

Europe wants to keep Tehran in the 2015 nuclear agreement, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), but it also wants to placate US President Donald Trump. This has become more difficult as Washington and Tehran have escalated rhetoric or taken actions deemed provocative by the other.

Peter Jenkins, UK ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency from 2001-06, said Europe’s goals are incompatible.

“I would like to believe that the UK and France are aiming to expose to the Security Council the falsity of the US claim that Iran’s latest missile test is a violation of [Security Council Resolution] 2231 and the lack of proof that the missile in question was designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons,” Jenkins said. “I fear it is more likely that they have not given up their search for ways of appeasing Trump and that they are oblivious to the double standards on which their condemnation of Iranian policies and practices so often rest.”

Iran argues that Security Council Resolution 2231, which in 2015 replaced earlier resolutions and endorsed the JCPOA, referred only to missiles “designed” for nuclear warheads. Tehran says ballistic missiles are essential for its defence, given the country’s weak air force with planes that mainly predate the 1979 revolution.

Both Trump and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have said the November test violated Resolution 2231. US Defence Secretary James Mattis claimed Iran violated “the sense” (rather than the substance) of the resolution.

This may reflect convergence between the European position and that of at least some members of the Trump administration. Britain and France suggested Iran “flouted” the resolution. At the UN Security Council, the two European powers raised the issue of Iran’s firing of shorter-range missiles in September at Islamic State targets in eastern Syria. Iranian state television reported the missiles carried the slogan “Death to America.”

In the spring, Britain, France and Germany (the E3 or three European signatories to the JCPOA) unsuccessfully lobbied other EU members for sanctions against Iranian individuals or groups linked to the missile programme. Analysts argued this was primarily a gesture designed to placate Trump.

The E3 subsequently raised its concerns directly with Iran, including during recent visits to Tehran by UK Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt and senior French and German officials. The efforts appear to have run into a brick wall. One official suggested Iran had flat-out refused “to talk ballistics.”

Another problem for Europe’s strategy is that the United States has tied up Iran’s missile programme with the wide-ranging set of 12 demands issued by Pompeo in May. The demands include Tehran ending uranium enrichment and breaking links with regional allies, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah, militant Palestinian groups and Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Neither has Europe disentangled Iran’s longer-range ballistic missile programme from its supply of shorter-range missiles to allies in Iraq, Hezbollah and the Houthis in Yemen. The last of these was found by a UN panel last January to violate the 2015 UN Yemen arms embargo. Iran has formally set a 2,000km limit on its ballistic missiles and has been relatively restrained about testing longer-range missiles. The last longer-range missile was fired in January 2017.

Europe’s influence in Iran is not enhanced by its inability to establish a special purpose vehicle (SPV) to maintain trade in the face of US secondary sanctions. Fearful of US retaliation, no European country is keen to host the SPV.

The danger, therefore, is that Europe’s balancing act will neither satisfy the Trump administration nor Iranian President Hassan Rohani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Rohani and Zarif face trenchant domestic criticism from principlist critics who have added charges of economic incompetence to their long-running carping about the nuclear agreement.

The hard-line Kayhan newspaper published a front-page story about the “yellow jacket” anti-government protests in France but this is unlikely to distract readers from rising prices at home. After registering more than 10% GDP growth in 2016-17, Iran is facing recession and the rial has lost 70% of its value in the past year.

Jenkins said Iran is unlikely, at least in the short term, to be so frustrated by Europe that it abandons the JCPOA and resumes the frozen parts of the nuclear programme. “Rohani and Zarif will be cross but philosophical,” he said. “They have learned to expect no better of the UK and France.”