Debate: On Iran, Europe Also Faces a Choice (Part II)

David Fernández: E3 should not have jeopardised the transatlantic relationship over Iran.

, by David Fernández

Debate: On Iran, Europe Also Faces a Choice (Part II)
Josep Borrell, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, meets Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. US Department of State.

On January 23rd, 2020, the hands of the Doomsday Clock inched forward once again, this time stopping at only 100 seconds before midnight. The clock, which represents the likelihood of an imminent global catastrophe, is closer to midnight than ever before in its 73-year history. The most important factors influencing the clock’s fluctuations are climate change and the risk of nuclear war. Since taking office in 2016, U.S. President Donald Trump has helped precipitate such movement on 3 separate occasions.

Trump’s successfully ordered assassination of Qasem Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s armed forces, marks the latest instance in a general trend. Despite the fact that everyone involved has said that they do not want a war, the conflict between the U.S. and Iran has only continued to escalate. As a matter of fact, by the time Iranian missiles slammed into an American base in Iraq on January 8th, 2020, the U.S. and Iran were closer to war than ever. As Ariane Tabatabai, a political scientist at Columbia University, wrote recently in the New York Times: “If the Trump administration does not move to reduce tensions, it will soon find itself facing the very dilemma the nuclear deal was designed to avoid: the choice between a nuclear Iran or the need to start a war to prevent one.”

But the Trump administration and Iran are not the only important actors here. The European signatories of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) may actually hold the key to solving the current crisis. The question is: how should they act?

Iran’s status and its influence in the Middle East represents one of the deepest fault lines between Washington and the E3 capitals as well as Brussels. Iran is, by all accounts, gaining regional influence in the Middle East, seeking to build a Shiite Crescent of Iranian influence, covering Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, although the execution of Soleimaini may have disrupted the consolidation of this axis.

Regardless of the differences between the Atlantic partners on this or other issues, there is one basic truth: Europe is critically reliant on American support for its own defence, not to mention force projection. Even France or the United Kingdom, two parties to the JCPOA and the European countries with the largest militaries, have very limited strategic depth and deployment capacities even in their own backyard.

The perfect illustration of this limit was the Libyan intervention in 2011. Originally envisioned as a multilateral initiative led and carried out by Europeans, it became clear almost immediately that the goals of the UN-sanctioned intervention could not be achieved by Europe alone. Without American intervention, the European parties could not have managed the goal of preventing the massacre of Benghazi and the ousting of Muamar al-Qadaffi, Libya’s then-regnant dictator. Three decades of defence cuts across the continent and the over-institutionalised and intergovernmental structures of the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and the Common Security and Defence Policy (CFDP) impose such a constraint on European decisiveness and capacity as to render them useless. Even France, the European country with the most military capacities overseas, had trouble maintaining a sustained effort to enforce a no-fly zone for a short period of time right across the Mediterranean.

As Laurent Fabius, then-Minister of Foreign Affairs for François Hollande, lamented in his memoir, 37, Quay d’Orsay, the JCPOA negotiations were in essence a bilateral affair. Most compromises were reached in private meetings between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Javad Zarif, then presented to the rest of the negotiators as a fait accompli. Inside the U.S, the JCPOA also proved highly controversial, with many in President Obama’s own Democratic Party not even supporting the agreement—not to mention the Republican Party, which opposed the agreement en bloc. Because of this, the JCPOA was never formally adopted as a treaty in the U.S.—there was no majority to pass it through in the Senate—but was approved through legal chicanery that guaranteed the agreement’s implementation if there was no clear majority against it.

Furthermore, since the Russian invasion of Crimea and the situation in the Donbas, if anything European dependence on the United States has increased. Although European states are finally trying to streamline coordination and expand their defence budgets, it will take too much time until self-defence is a genuine option.

The JCPOA was always a highly partisan issue in the U.S, and the chances of its survival were always slim. Tying the EU’s regional policy so closely to an agreement that was always politically volatile in the U.S. was unlikely to be a good idea. In fact, Trump’s Iran policy has been—histrionics aside—one of the most conventionally Republican policies he has undertaken.

Iran has, as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) certifies, remained committed to the terms of the nuclear agreement. The key term here is nuclear, however. The JCPOA was deliberately designed to only guarantee nuclear non-proliferation. There was no inclusion of non-development of ballistic missiles, sponsoring of terrorism outside its borders or guaranteeing the domestic respect of basic human rights. This was, it is true, because Iran would not have committed under any circumstances to those conditions.

The JCPOA was conceived as a first step towards the normalisation of relations with Iran, to de-engage the U.S. in the medium- or long-term from the Middle East. But this was the desire of President Obama, far from the neoconservative wishes of many in the GOP. As such, it was unlikely to survive him absent the election of Hillary Clinton. As she was not elected, the process of diplomatic normalisation was aborted. Likewise, although Iran respected the nuclear agreement, it cannot be said that the country has stopped meddling in Middle Eastern affairs or stoking conflict for its own benefit.

Following Trump’s surprise election, the attempts of European leaders like Macron to convince him to respect that agreement were definitely the right move. If European leaders deemed that the survival of the agreement was to their benefit, then this certainly was the way to go. However, once it became clear that the Trump administration was determined to abandon the agreement, remaining attached to it became a very risky move.

The European Union’s and the E3’s commitment to the JCPOA after the U.S. departure was a strategic mistake. It alienated an American administration openly flirting with isolationism and abandoning its NATO commitments, while tying them close to Iran. In order to keep Iran attached to the agreement, the European Union promised increased private investment into the country. This was ultimately bound to fail—European businesses are far too tied in to American consumer and financial markets as to see any potential profits from Iran offset those losses.

The European Union’s decision to uphold the agreement’s economic relief sections despite lacking US support made it vulnerable. Soon, it looked like the EU was more invested in maintaining the JCPOA than Iran itself. This opened up opportunities for Iran to threaten to withdraw unless it obtained economic relief (that is to say, European investment). And it did take advantage of this opportunity, in a step-by-step manner, with increasing demands. This can only just be the beginning: a controlled tit-for-tat of moderately disruptive steps to call for more European investment could become an integral part of EU-Iran relations.

This would endanger European businesses to American retaliation. As private investment is the main source of investment in Iran, few businesses would choose to invest in Iran over obtaining loans from American-based banks. This has resulted in under delivering in investment, regardless of public officials’ promises.

Fundamentally, until the European Union can lessen its defence dependence on the United States, it is bound by its foreign policy decisions—whether correct or mistaken—and the extrication process will not be simple. As that independence moment has not yet arrived, and as long as European defence at home and ability to intervene overseas remain so reliant on the U.S, then it is necessary to toe the line. Particularly on sensitive issues like the JCPOA, where the potential losses incurred from a deteriorating relationship with Washington could not be offset by a better relationship with the Iranian regime.

This is the second half of a two-piece debate on the EU’s policy towards Iran in the wake of the latter’s upcoming parliamentary election. The first half can be found here.

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