Europe must challenge Iran’s assertion of impunity
Iran is officially in violation of the 2015 nuclear deal and the violations will get worse unless the European Union capitulates to Iranian demands.
Iran’s leaders have announced they exceeded limits imposed on its stockpiles of nuclear material and Iranian nuclear facilities are expected to begin enriching uranium beyond the maximum allowed fissile purity. Iranian President Hassan Rohani has boasted about his government’s plans by saying it would accelerate those activities up to “any amount we want.”
This is far from being the strongest example of Iranian defiance, coming as it does after attacks on six tankers and the downing of a US surveillance drone. Yet there is good reason to believe that it will contribute to growing scepticism among European policymakers who have remained committed to the nuclear deal and Iran more generally. This is as it should be. In the face of economic pressure by the Trump administration, Tehran is more clearly showing its true colours.
To compel the Europeans to provide Iran with financial incentives for maintaining modest limits on its nuclear programme, Tehran runs a risk of encouraging them to do exactly the opposite. Political leaders in London, Paris and Berlin have reacted to threats by Rohani and others by reiterating their commitment to upholding the deal but virtually all of the same Western officials have expressed deep concerns over Iran’s behaviour and it is reasonable to assume that their patience has a limit.
Unfortunately, it is not clear where that limit is. The European Union and its members were remarkably slow to react even after terrorist threats on their own soil, which recognisably originated in Tehran.
French intelligence confirmed as much last year after an investigation into the planned bombing of a rally of Iranian expatriates near Paris. It was one of at least a half dozen such plots thwarted across Europe and the United States in 2018 and yet none of this seems to have been regarded as an adequate reason to sever ties with Tehran.
The European Union did impose sanctions on the Iranian secret service and some of its known operatives but it has a long way to go before it even begins to approach the “maximum pressure” strategy adopted by the Trump administration.
There is still time, because that strategy is developing. Prior to the implementation of sanctions on Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in June, the White House estimated that Iran’s economy was about 80% isolated.
US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin promised the pressure would continue until it reached 100% or until Iran’s malign behaviour ended. Developments in the region suggest the latter outcome is extremely unlikely.
Iranian officials have repeatedly affirmed their commitment to defying economic and diplomatic pressure from the United States but they have also made it clear that effective defiance is not possible without the help of traditional US allies, such as the three European signatories to the nuclear agreement.
Threats of uranium enrichment to “any amount” stand alongside attempts to attack global oil supplies and pro-democracy opposition groups as part of an effort to strong-arm Western policymakers into the renewed embrace of a policy of appeasement. This places the European Union at a crossroads at which it can either reward terrorism or see it punished.
This is the fundamental question that policymakers must consider ahead of any more nuanced concerns about diplomatic tact or paths of least resistance. Iran will resist any approach that the international community takes to restraining its behaviour. Its officials have said so amid the ongoing tensions. What remains to be seen is whether the international community will enforce its positions.
There’s really no room for debate on this point. Maximum pressure on the Iranian regime may compel it to submit to negotiations that yield something much more comprehensive than the 2015 nuclear deal. If this doesn’t happen, maximum pressure may encourage an already active resistance movement inside Iran to exploit the regime’s economic weakness and realise the people’s long-frustrated demands for freedom, democratic governance and peaceful international relations.
If the world eschews maximum pressure, a devastating outcome awaits. Rohani said it himself: Iran will immediately move towards nuclear weapons capability and, speaking more generally, the regime will do whatever it wants, secure in the belief that the international community will remain divided over the question of how to stop it.