Tehran continues to pin hopes on Europe
Until recently, Iran’s leaders spoke cautiously and relatively respectfully of US President Donald Trump. However, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently said he would not “waste his time answering the rants and whoppers of the brute US president.”
Trump’s “stupidity” in refusing to certify Iran’s compliance with the 2015 nuclear agreement with world powers should not distract anyone from US “deceitfulness,” said Khamenei, who made clear he expected European powers to compensate for any new sanctions introduced by Washington.
Trump’s convoluted position in not abrogating the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), while passing the buck on sanctions to the US Congress puts on hold Tehran’s threat to resume its nuclear programme. The agreement restricts this.
Sanctions introduced by either Trump or Congress could be seen by Tehran as a violation of the JCPOA, whether or not the United States formally renounces the treaty. Even so, the JCPOA could be maintained by Iran alongside the other signatories: Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany.
Some in Washington and in various Arab capitals praised a Trump strategy to confront Iran over its missile programme and regional role. They see this as expressed in his new “terrorist” designations of individuals and entities linked to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). This, they argue, can both win European support and weaken Iran by splitting supporters of the JCPOA led by President Hassan Rohani and the deal’s hard-line critics.
Either appears fanciful. Trump’s unilateral decertification has undermined the unprecedented US co-operation with other world powers that produced both tough Iran sanctions in 2012 and the subsequent JCPOA. Wolfgang Ischinger, former German ambassador to the United States, said Trump had shown “total disrespect for America’s allies” and a joint statement from Berlin, London and Paris stressed that the JCPOA, “the culmination of 13 years of diplomacy,” remained in “our shared national security interest.”
Days after Trump declined to certify the nuclear deal, Norwegian energy company Saga announced a $2.9 billion, five-year project to install solar panels in Iran’s central desert. In a week when Oslo approved a $1 billion credit line for projects in Iran, Norwegian Ambassador to Iran Lars Nordrum said Europe “stands united in support of the JCPOA.”
Europe buys 40% of Iran’s daily exports of 2.7 million barrels of oil and condensates. Total, the French energy company, has a $5 billion development project for Iran’s South Pars gas field and European carmakers Mercedes-Benz Daimler, Renault Peugeot and Citroen are all developing partnerships in Iran’s automotive sector.
It is hard to believe Europe — much less Russia, China and other countries in Asia — are about to row back on their growing interests in Iran at Trump’s behest.
Neither are there signs Trump is splitting Iran’s political class. “Of course, the reaction to external threats and insults is unity,” said Farideh Farhi an Iranian expert at the University of Hawaii. “Even former [reformist] President Mohammad Khatami, whose presence in public has been restricted by the security forces in recent years, stated that while there are differences of views in Iran, there is absolutely no difference in standing against external threats.”
Farhi pointed out that Khatami had called the IRGC a pillar of national security and praised its role fighting the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq. “Khatami asked how can someone come and insult the IRGC at a time when it is standing against terrorists and giving martyrs,” Farhi said.
“Khatami’s speech supporting the IRGC shocked Iranian youth who support Rohani and reform,” said Saeid Golkar, visiting assistant professor of political science at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. “There was another example with the public handshake and joking between [Iranian Foreign Minister] Mohammad [Javad] Zarif and the IRGC commander, Major- General Mohammad Ali Jafari, which angered some hardliners.”
In an incident highlighted on social media, Brigadier-General Hossein Salami, deputy IRGC commander, was interrupted by a protester in a wheelchair complaining about Jafari and Zarif, only for Salami to stress the importance of national unity.
The United States, in contrast, appears divided. John Kerry, secretary of state under former President Barack Obama, called Trump’s decision “dangerous.” He said it was a “reckless abandonment of facts in favour of ego and ideology from a president who would rather play a high-stakes game of chicken with the Congress and with Iran than admit that the nuclear agreement is working.”
Kerry’s appeal to Congress and “our allies” as “the only adults left in the room” to maintain the JCPOA reflects a fear that the Middle East would be left on the brink by the collapse of the JCPOA with America alone and Iran’s nuclear programme resumed.
One factor behind the negotiations that led to the JCPOA was fear of conflict. Former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell told the New York Times last year that Iran’s rapid progress with its nuclear programme after 2005 had brought the United States “closer to war with the Islamic Republic than at any time since 1979.”