Analysis

Netanyahu Is in Europe as Trump's Lobbyist-in-chief

The prime minister may be meeting Europe's top leaders this week about the Iran deal, but Netanyahu really only cares about Trump's opinion

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shaking hands after a news conference in Berlin, June 4, 2018.
Markus Schreiber/AP

Before taking off for Berlin on Monday morning, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was very clear what was on the agenda of his meetings with Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron and Theresa May. And no, it’s not the cultural festival marking 70 years of Israel-France relations.

Netanyahu is on his umpteenth round of talks with the European leaders to try to convince them to ditch the nuclear deal with Iran. But he knows there’s no chance of them doing so. He basically admitted that before taking off when he said, “It may not have a consensus right now, but over time I think such an understanding will be formed.”

Both Israeli and Western diplomats who have been involved in behind-the-scenes discussions over the future of the Iran deal concur with that assessment.

“For now, the Europeans aren’t going to say they’re going along with Trump. They’re too angry with the way he has pulled out abruptly and they’re going to go through the motions of trying to keep the deal alive,” said one senior Israeli diplomat.

But while the statements from Berlin, Paris and London – as well as Brussels, where the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, has been the deal’s chief cheerleader – have been emphatic over the last four weeks, the real issue now is not diplomatic or political.

Whatever they may think about Trump’s policies and attitude, the European leaders have little control over the private corporations that were invested in business deals with Iran. The main dividend from the nuclear agreement for the Iranians, beyond the unfreezing of their assets, was to have been the reopening of the global marketplace to them. And slowly but surely, Western companies were beginning to return to Iran. But now, Signora Mogherini’s exhortations notwithstanding, they are already closing up shop.

The list of companies winding down operations in Iran lengthens almost daily. Over the past month, it includes such giants as the French energy corporation Total – which announced it will not proceed with its $1 billion development of Iran’s South Pars offshore natural gas field, in which it had already invested some $90 million.

Other major European businesses crucial to Iran’s oil trade also leaving the country are the German insurance giant Allianz and the Danish shipping operator Maersk.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressing a press conference after a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin, June 4, 2018.
TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP

The biggest deals sunk by Trump are the modernization of Iran’s airlines, which are currently flying aging death traps. Both main passenger aircraft manufacturers Boeing and Airbus were negotiating $20 billion sales to Iran. Obviously, America’s Boeing cannot go ahead now, but the European aerospace giant will not be able to sell its wares to Iran either, due to the high content of “Made in the USA” components in its aircraft.

The announcement from French car manufacturers Peugeot and Citroen that they will not continue operating in Iran is disastrous to other parts of Iran’s economy. And even Banque de Commerce et de Placements (BCP), a Swiss financial services company that was helping to finance deals in Iran, announced last week it is carrying out no new transactions related to Tehran.

“It doesn’t matter what the European politicians are saying now,” says one American diplomat. “No major European company is going to take the risk of angering the U.S. and doing business in Iran, when it’s clear the administration is hell-bent on sanctions. Ultimately, it’s clear that the Iran deal in its current form, where the Iranians were expecting to reap the benefits of opening up their market to the West, is dead. They will continue trading with Russia, China and India, but they had that before the deal already.”

But the question remains: If it’s clear that the Iran deal – as far as Iran’s financial benefits from dealing with the West – is finished, why is Netanyahu trying so hard to convince the European leaders of something they will have to come to terms with anyway? Why rub their faces in diplomatic failure?

Netanyahu doesn’t expect Merkel or Macron to publicly admit defeat. (May, who is anxious for trade deals with the United States after Britain leaves the EU, may actually have to swallow the public humiliation.) Like so much of what Netanyahu does nowadays – such as the dramatic “Iran Lied” press conference in April, where he presented the Iranian archive the Mossad had smuggled out of Tehran – he is playing to an audience of one.

He is aware that in order to continue ensuring he has U.S. President Donald Trump’s ear, he needs to continuously be out there, banging on the same themes of the failure of the Iran deal. Which is why he is also taking the time in his very brief visit to Berlin to meet the new U.S. ambassador to Germany, the scandalous Richard Grenell.

Grenell caused controversy in Germany by saying he wants to “empower other conservatives throughout Europe,” which sounded very much like a rallying cry for the far right. He will pass on the message to Trump that Netanyahu is cheerleading for him in Germany – where a postwar U.S. president has never been less popular.

The man who began his political career selling Israel’s policy in the United States has now made it his business to sell U.S. policy to the Europeans. Netanyahu has gone from lobbying Trump to ditch the Iran deal to being Trump’s lobbyist-in-chief.