To scrap the Iran deal would hurt European interests, stir up tensions
Every week brings yet another example of the unreality of the United States’ Middle East policies, which confuse reality and rhetoric and geopolitics with empty slogans.
Beyond what one senior European diplomat called “such pie in the sky ideas,” the United States’ hard operative policies in the Middle East are to smash the Islamic State (ISIS) and inflict painful damage on Iran. ISIS might be formally smashed but the United States has no real plan for the governance of Iraq, or Syria for that matter. It has abandoned its Iraqi Kurdish allies and might well do the same with their Syrian peers soon.
Iran will be a tougher nut to crack. US President Donald Trump has yet to understand, let alone acknowledge, that in 2003 the United States changed the centuries-old balance of power in the Middle East to favour Iran.
As much as Trump criticises his predecessor for trying to reach some form of detente with Iran, he has failed to understand three things that former President Barack Obama, senior figures in the US establishment and a majority of military and political leaders in France, the United Kingdom and Germany have taken on board for years.
First, the only alternative to a deal allowing Iran to enrich uranium under strict international control is war; second, rooting out ISIS’s barbarism effectively aligns the United States with Iran; and last, that most of the problems resulting from the US invasion of Iraq can only be solved with Iran.
The Europeans are in a tight spot. They have failed to agree to impose sanctions on Iranian institutions and individuals over Tehran’s support for Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria. They are unable to reach an agreement on this because some fear that such countermeasures would fail to persuade Trump to stay in the deal while strengthening hardliners in Tehran who would argue that the European Union is re-imposing sanctions through the back door.
The United States is pressing the European Union to agree to tougher measures on Iran’s ballistic missile programme and regional role, as well as a removal of so-called “sunset clauses” under which restrictions on Tehran’s nuclear activities start to be lifted in 2025. Europeans know that a decision by Western powers to extend the clauses unilaterally would certainly scupper the deal. After all, Russia and China are parties to the agreement.
Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, has previously espoused preventive strikes. His hostility towards Iran and North Korea is intense. Before his appointment, Bolton wrote that “it is perfectly legitimate for the United States to respond to the current ‘necessity’ posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons by striking first.”
Preventive war is a concept that has no legitimacy under international law. It was rejected by all post-1945 US presidents except George W. Bush, who used it to justify his invasion of Iraq, a monumental blunder that boosted Iran’s influence in Iraq and beyond to Lebanon. Bolton continues to defend the war.
He also favours what he calls the “Libyan option” — quick and total destruction in North Korea and Iran. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is aware of the fate of former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi and the aftermath in Libya, as is French President Emmanuel Macron, who has, in no uncertain words, criticised his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, for his Libyan policy.
European leaders, such as British Prime Minister Theresa May and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are well appraised of the fact that, if Trump refuses to extend a waiver to new sanctions on Iran by May 12, resulting in the United States either breaching the deal or pulling out of it, his chances of reaching a deal with Kim are slim.
The North Koreans would have to conclude that the United States cannot be trusted to respect its internationally negotiated commitments. Their concern would be shared by Russia, China and India, the first two of which have close ties with Pyongyang and all three of which have close ties with Tehran.
In the words of one senior European diplomat, if Trump walks away from the 2015 nuclear accord, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, it will amount to an act of “diplomatic vandalism,” which will seriously undermine the rules-based international order the United States took so much energy and skill to build after 1945.
Despite Macron’s endeavours during his state visit to Washington, neither he, Merkel nor May seem able to deter Trump from an outcome that would undermine European security, deprive major companies of major markets and make an already tense Middle East an even more dangerous place.