Analysis

Trump Shatters EU-U.S. Understandings - on Iran Nuclear Deal and Otherwise

Even with the new sanctions, Iran won't give the U.S. a pretext for annulling the accord. Moreover, Europe's moderate stance on Iran is embraced by Trump's top people

U.S. President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel attend the Women's Entrepreneurship Finance event during the G20 leaders summit in Hamburg, Germany July 8, 2017.
POOL/REUTERS

U.S. President Donald Trump has put together a nice gift for his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rohani. Ahead of the Iranian’s inauguration for a second term Saturday, Trump ordered new sanctions in a law with a long name: the Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act of 2017.

The law imposes sanctions on further Iranian officials and organizations working in the missile industry, and targets any person or company that helps Iran spread terror or develop missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

The legislation obliges the president to report biannually on strategies aimed at “deterring conventional and asymmetric Iranian activities and threats that directly threaten the United States and key allies in the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond.” This is an interesting formulation that indirectly gives Israel and Arab states such as Saudi Arabia the status of interested parties that can present their suspicions about Iran’s actions.

The law is very broad and sufficiently vague so as to permit claims that ostensibly would oblige the administration to review or even ditch the historic nuclear accord signed by Iran and the big powers two years ago. But opponents of the agreement shouldn’t cry tears of joy. Trump’s promise to annul the accord, “the worst deal ever,” is a very distant goal, probably an unattainable one.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran hasn’t breached the accord so far. This has been confirmed by the European Union, and even Washington admits that it has no claims regarding violations. On the contrary, Iran argues that the continued implementation of some of the previous sanctions, as well as the newly legislated ones, violate the agreement. Still, Iran will continue to abide by the accord and try to break out of its international isolation, Rohani declared last week.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rohani at a ceremony in Tehran, August 3, 2017.
Iranian Presidency Office via AP

Not only is Iran not providing a perfect excuse for dropping the accord, the EU isn’t keen to join Washington’s strategic game; it views the agreement as the best instrument for preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Thus the accord is now generating deep divisions between the Europeans and Americans. The rift has only widened since Trump’s inauguration, and it includes more than the nuclear deal.

It seems that in the six months since Trump assumed office, he has managed to shatter not only the foundations of U.S.-Russian relations, but also the basic understandings between the United States and EU.

It was enough to listen to the exchange of poisoned darts between Brussels and Washington last week, after the approval of the sanctions against Russia, to realize that a new cold war has started, this time between Europe and the United States. This is the same zero-sum game that characterized the Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union, in which any American achievement was necessarily a Soviet loss, and vice versa. The difference now is that any American gain is perceived in Europe as a threat to its security, with Iran serving as an example.

EU trade with Iran burgeoning

EU members, mainly Germany, Italy and France, are the main beneficiaries of the nuclear agreement. Their leaders have declared that even if the United States withdraws from the accord, the EU should stick with it as long as Iran doesn’t violate it. Deals worth billions of dollars have been signed, including the purchase of planes and spare parts for cars. There have also been contracts for investing in infrastructure and oil and gas fields.

A huge $4.8 billion deal was signed last month by Iran and a French-Chinese consortium, led by the French energy giant Total, to develop the South Pars gas field. It’s the first deal signed by Iran and a European company since the nuclear agreement was sealed.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Jawad Zarif, left, and UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutierrez in New York, July 2017.
Bebeto Matthews / AP

Iran’s exports to Europe have surged fourfold since the accord was finalized, standing at $5.5 billion in 2016, with more to come. Germany, Italy and South Korea plan to invest billions of dollars in developing solar energy in Iran. Trade between Iran and Germany climbed 26 percent last year to $2.6 billion. Germany intends to increase this to $5 billion by next year.

It’s not only Europe’s economic benefits that are hampering Trump’s anti-Iran strategy. The EU notes gaps in its own ranks: between supporters of Trump and Israel such as Hungary and Poland, and stronger European countries. Some are suggesting the creation of a two-tier EU, the strong and the weak, with the strong taking the lead in foreign affairs and the weak forced to join a united position against Washington. Proponents of this conception view Trump’s sanctions strategy with suspicion; they’re even repelled by it, given that he doesn’t even bother to consult with his European counterparts.

Twisting Trump’s arm

The EU’s ties with Iran are vital given the United States’ withdrawal from the Middle East and its focus on internal affairs. As Russia is entrenching its position in the region, mainly in Syria and through its collaboration with Turkey, the EU views Iran as a lever for promoting its interests.

France, a bitter opponent of Syrian President Bashar Assad, has said his removal is not its top priority. Not by chance, President Emmanuel Macron’s declaration on this issue came just before the signing of the Total deal. The EU is most interested in ending the war in Syria, which continues to drive refugees into Europe. European countries realize that without Iranian cooperation the refugee threat will remain, strengthening the far right.

The question is to what extent Trump will agree to consider the European hurdle and adapt his strategy to that of his NATO allies. His senior advisers, including Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, are now operating à la the Israeli opponents to a strike against Iran that Benjamin Netanyahu dreamed about.

These three advisers twisted Trump’s arm last month to announce that Iran had not violated the nuclear accord, thus avoiding a serious crisis with the EU. McMaster went even further, firing three senior officials at the National Security Council, including Ezra Cohen-Watnick, who was responsible for intelligence coordination, Rich Higgins, who was in charge of strategic planning, and Derek Harvey, who held the Middle East portfolio. All three were hawks on Iran.

Nevertheless, Trump remains Trump and he’s still toying with repealing the nuclear accord. According to American media reports, he now plans to pressure the IAEA. Not only will he demand that the agency find violations, he will demand access to Iranian military installations on suspicion they’re being used to develop missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

The monitoring of nonnuclear military installations remains a red line for Iran and isn’t included in the accord, except when there’s a reasonable doubt the agreement is being breached at these facilities. So far the IAEA has no evidence for such activities.

It seems Trump should quickly abandon the American dream of changing the Iranian regime by toppling the government, assuming he finds the time to read the reports and research showing how Washington tried 72 times to topple foreign regimes, succeeding in part only one-third of the time. Often new regimes or puppet governments ultimately adopted anti-American positions.

Iran’s leaders aren’t worried about the regime being toppled, despite the foreign intervention twice in the 20th century. The traditional conflict between conservatives and reformists doesn’t guarantee regime change, which ultimately depends on checks and balances in addition to the authority of the supreme leader.

Rohani, meanwhile, is starting his second and final term Saturday, since the constitution only allows two consecutive terms. His main task will be building a strong reformist base among the public and blocking the power of his rivals, who hold powerful economic and military positions. The United States can help him strengthen the reformist camp, but for this to happen it seems the administration must first change in Washington, not Iran.