Iran under pressure as Europe‘s patience 'wearing thin'

In a sign that Tehran may have overplayed its hand with the latest attack on oil installations in Saudi Arabia, key European players France, Germany and the UK blamed Iran for the attack.
Tuesday 24/09/2019
Iranian visitors walk past a Khordad-3 air defence system at Tehran's Islamic Revolution and Holy Defence museum, during an exhibition of what Iran says are US and other drones captured in its territory, in the capital Tehran on September 21, 2019. (AFP)
Iranian visitors walk past a Khordad-3 air defence system at Tehran's Islamic Revolution and Holy Defence museum, during an exhibition of what Iran says are US and other drones captured in its territory, in the capital Tehran on September 21, 2019. (AFP)

Ever since the United States tore up the nuclear agreement with Iran last year, Tehran could count on European powers to resist Washington’s efforts at isolating the country and presenting it as a villain on the international stage. But now Iran’s lucky streak could be over.

In a sign that Tehran may have overplayed its hand with the latest attack on oil installations in Saudi Arabia, key European players France, Germany and the UK blamed Iran for the attack. The three powers gave US President Donald Trump a political boost by urging Tehran to agree to new talks on its nuclear and missile programmes as well as on regional security issues, a long-time demand by Trump.

France, which has mediated between Iran and the United States in the name of the EU, called on Iran to take the “path of de-escalation.”

“Patience is wearing thin in Europe and Tehran should heed this warning,” Sanam Vakil, senior research fellow at the Chatham House MENA Programme, wrote, on Twitter.

The Europeans issued their joint statement after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron met at the United Nations on the sidelines of the annual gathering of world leaders in New York

Johnson went one step further than Macron and Merkel by suggesting that Trump should negotiate a new agreement with Iran. Trump’s claim that the 2015 nuclear pact is too weak to stop a suspected Iranian nuclear weapons programme and Iranian aggression in the Middle East lies at the core of the current US-Iranian rift. 

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo thanked the European nations for their statement blaming Iran, saying, “This will strengthen diplomacy and the cause of peace.”

By contrast, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who only weeks ago praised French efforts to diffuse the Iranian-American crisis, responded by lashing out at the three powers involved, which are also known as the “E3.”

In a tweet, Zarif condemned the “E3’s paralysis” because they had failed to honour the 2015 nuclear agreement since the US departure from the treaty last year. He also accused Europe of “parroting absurd US claims” and said there would be “no new deal” before the US returned to compliance with the 2015 treaty. 

Iran’s armed forces chief of staff, Major-General Mohammad Baqeri, warned his country’s adversaries against military action, saying that “the result of a violation toward this country will be captivity and defeat.”

But Tehran’s defiance could not hide the fact that Europe’s statement had knocked over an important pillar of Iran’s strategy. 

Tehran has been careful to keep the E3 out of the US camp, using a method of “plausible deniability” to distance itself from aggressive acts such as the one in Saudi Arabia on September 14 or from attacks on several oil tankers in the Gulf in May.

Until this week, Europe was willing to go along with this strategy, ignoring Iranian provocations in the Gulf and arguing that the EU’s overriding interest was to keep the 2015 nuclear deal alive. But the September 14 attack appears to have crossed a line for the European powers. 

With France, Germany and the UK joining a growing international consensus that Iran was behind the attack in Saudi Arabia, Iran is more isolated now than at any moment since Trump announced the US withdrawal from the international nuclear deal in May last year.

“It is clear to us that Iran bears responsibility for this attack. There is no other plausible explanation. We support ongoing investigations to establish further details,” France, Germany and the UK said.

Shortly after the Europeans issued their statement on September 23, Macron met Iranian President Hassan Rohani on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York for talks that lasted more than 90 minutes.

“The president said that in the current situation, the path of de-escalation was narrow but more necessary than ever and that the time had come for Iran to take it,” Macron’s office said, adding that it was urgent to start a discussion on a security agenda for the region.

Iran has denied any involvement for the Saudi attack. Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels, who have been fighting a war against a Saudi-led alliance for five years, said they were behind the action.

Following the attack, Trump has tightened economic sanctions on Iran and ordered more US troops to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in a show of support for key allies. But the president has not ordered the use of military force against Iran, resisting pressure from conservative hawks who believe Iran must be punished.

The US president even held out the possibility of meeting Rohani at the UN, although there were no preparations that could point to such a summit, which would be a first between America and Iran. “I never rule anything out,” Trump said.

The European statement blaming Iran for aggression in Saudi Arabia also weakened the credibility of a proposed initiative by Rohani calling for “peace and stability.”

Speaking before he left Tehran for the annual UN meeting, Rohani said he was “going to New York with the slogan of ‘Coalition of Hope’ and ‘Hormuz Peace Initiative.’” He said he would present a plan “based on the fact that the Islamic Republic of Iran can ensure the security of the Persian Gulf and the Sea of Oman with the help of regional countries.”