The U.S. is funnelling military assets to the region following a series of incidents that have caused damage to oil tankers in the Persian Gulf. Although Iran has denied involvement, many suspect that Tehran was the instigator of these attacks.
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump has indicated that he does not want war - but others in his administration see things differently, and in any case crises have the potential to escalate inadvertently beyond the designs of rational policymaking.
As well as being a dangerous geopolitical moment, the crisis throws light on the growing divergences in transatlantic relations.
Ever since Trump anounced in May 2018 that the U.S. would withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, both sides of the Atlantic have been at loggerheads. The European Union High Representative Federica Mogherini expressed her "regret" at the decision, and warned in no uncertain terms that the deal was "crucial for the security of the region, of Europe and of the entire world."
The Europeans saw no justification for withdrawing from the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). They had regarded its agreement in 2015 as a major success, constraining Iranian nuclear behavior while offering a model of multilateral diplomacy, led by the EU and America, but also including Russia and China.
Europe’s clash with the U.S. over the Iran nuclear deal reflects its need to defend a signal foreign policy achievement which plays up EU strengths: negotiations, diplomacy and soft power.
But President Trump made no secret of his hostility to a deal that was considered a keynote success of the Obama administration. Trump argued that the JCPOA only delayed Iran’s path to a nuclear bomb, whilst releasing assets and trade opportunities that would invigorate the regime. Meanwhile he pointed to Iran’s intervention in Syria and Yemen, its continuing ballistic missile program and its targeting of dissidents abroad.
Europe countered that the JCPOA provided an agreed mechanism for curbing nuclear proliferation and pointed to the fact that the International Atomic Energy Agency had confirmed Iran’s adherence to the deal. The Europeans agree on the need for a change in Iranian behavior in the region, but not at the expense of losing the JCPOA. Europe clashed with the United States over the reimposition of sanctions against Tehran, and continues to try to circumvent these measures.
Transatlantic tensions focused upon Iran are hardly new; they have been a thorn in the side of the allies going back to the earliest days of the Islamic revolution.
European countries hoped to normalize relations with Iran during the 1980s, but the Reagan administration resisted their attempts. Even the Clinton era was characterized by deep differences. In 1996, the Republican-controlled Congress mandated the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act that threatened extra-territorial penalties against European firms that traded with Iran.
Yet European governments considered it unwise to isolate the regime and believed that by engaging with Iran they could modify its behavior. The Europeans collectively resisted U.S. pressure and threatened to take the dispute to the World Trade Organisation.
Under George W Bush, there were strains over categorizing Iran as part of the "Axis of Evil" and rumors circulating in Washington that if the invasion of Iraq worked out well, Iran was next in line.
Current tensions over Iran are stoked by European fears that America cares little about the transatlantic alliance and is willing to act unilaterally through the exercise of its military power.
During the lead-up to the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA, even ardently pro-Trump politicians like Boris Johnson, Britain’s then foreign secretary and now the leading candidate to succeed Theresa May as UK prime minister, joined with France’s president Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a last ditch attempt to persuade President Trump to remain a signatory.
European diplomats were close to obtaining a consensus agreement that would complement the nuclear deal, but the Trump administration scornfully dismissed these efforts.
U.S. unilateralism has depleted the reservoir of trust on which the Atlantic relationship was built and is sustained. Whilst the EU regarded the Iran deal as a critical contribution to international order, the Trump administration doesn't hide its contempt for multilateralism and is wedded to acting unilaterally in - what it argues - is America's best interests.
For its part, the U.S. feels frustrated by any requirement to act in concert with its allies and wary that its power will be constrained. The Trump administration feels that multilateralism should only be pursued if it yields greater rewards than acting alone.
It suspects more broadly that European countries want to free-ride on U.S. strength and it has accused them of being more concerned about their commercial interests than Western security.
The differences between the United States and Europe over the JCPOA can be traced to their conflicting threat perceptions over Iran. The Europeans, unlike the Americans, cannot imagine themselves at war with Iran. They view the use of military force as very much a last resort, and are particularly unhappy about the U.S. acting unilaterally, and potentially provocatively, without consulting its allies, when diplomatic options have not been exhausted.
The U.S. administration is far more mindful of the views of regional allies, like Israel and Saudi Arabia, that encourage a firmer stance and maximum sanctions against Iran.
Amidst a growing risk of conflict in the Middle East, the U.S. and European states are exhibiting an accelerating tendency to compete rather than cooperate, as their basic policy assumptions diverge ever further from each other.
President Trump is certainly exacerbating tensions in the transatlantic relationship, but these difficulties predated him and are likely to remain, in some form, well after he leaves office.
Wyn Rees is Professor of International Security in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham, UK.
Dr. Azriel Bermant is a lecturer in International Relations at Tel Aviv University and a research fellow in International Relations at the University of Nottingham. His latest book is "Margaret Thatcher and the Middle East" (Cambridge University Press, 2016). Twitter: @azrielb
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