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Iran’s nuclear deal may end up fading EU’s political clout

May 30,2018 - Last updated at May 30,2018

Time is running out for the EU to salvage the Iran nuclear deal following this month’s decision by US President Donald Trump to unilaterally pull his country out of the 2015 agreement. The foreign ministers of France, Britain, Germany and the EU have been holding talks with their Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, to find ways to go around a major hurdle to the survival of the deal, sweeping US economic sanctions. European companies, already tense and hesitant to invest in Iran even before Trump’s decision, cannot afford to fall victim to US sanctions. And without European economic assurances, Tehran will have no incentive to stick to its side of the bargain.

Since Trump took office in one of the most controversial presidential elections in recent US history, the rift between America and its European allies has been widening. The maverick US president, whose populist rhetoric during and after the campaign has mobilised millions of mainly disenchanted white voters, has presented unconventional positions on free trade, climate change, NATO, Russia, the Palestine question and now Iran. On almost all of these issues, he has held a starkly dissimilar stand than that of the EU and most European countries.

But his position on the Iran deal, negotiated painstakingly over several years with Barack Obama administration taking the lead and making it its primary foreign policy goal, is now proving to be the biggest challenge to the decades’ old trans-Atlantic alliance. The two sides have little in common on the benefits of keeping the deal intact. Last minute attempts to influence the US position, especially during French President Manuel Macron’s visit to the White House last month, have failed. Trump not only exited the agreement but his newly appointed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo outlined 12 conditions last week for the US to enter a new deal; one that limits Iran’s ballistic missile programme and rolls back its regional ambitions, including its presence in Syria and Iraq and its backing of Houthi rebels in Yemen, not to mention its support of Hizbollah and other militant groups.

Pompeo promised to “apply unprecedented financial pressure on the Iranian regime; the strongest sanctions in history”. As expected, these conditions were rejected by Tehran, raising questions on whether the US ultimate goal was regime change and not to negotiate a new deal.

The hardline US position has put unprecedented pressure on the Europeans and the Iranians. It is unlikely that the EU’s attempt to update its anti-sanctions laws and introduce new mechanisms to allow direct financial transfers from the European Central Bank to its opposite in Tehran will work. In an interconnected economic environment multinational companies rely heavily on US made components and technologies.

The EU is considering a series of measures, which include banning EU-based firms from complying with the revived US sanctions, but for that to happen it needs the unanimous support of the union’s 28 members. That looks difficult to achieve, but even if the deal is saved, for now, its benefits to Iran will be short lived.

Regardless of how the Iranian regime will react and what repercussions its attitude will have on the region, the US-EU rift is now a reality. President of the European Council Donald Tusk has warned last week that the US is a bad friend, who acts with “capricious assertiveness”. He told reporters that Europe had to be prepared to go it alone, that the US was an unreliable ally and that “looking at the latest decisions of President Trump, someone could even think: with friends like that, who needs enemies?”

Of course, Europe cannot afford to lose US patronage and protection. Last week, Macron told Russian President Vladimir Putin that Europe remains committed to its security and defence alliance with the United States despite recent disagreements over trade, the Iran nuclear deal, and other issues. The Iran deal may result in internal fractures within an already stressed EU. Last week, Poland’s Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz underlined growing differences within the EU over the issue. He said that “during discussions, we will emphasise the need to consider the motives of the United States and a greater empathy towards them”.

EU’s potential failure in saving the Iran deal will result not only in further internal divisions, but may limit its independence from the US, thus weakening the union’s political standing in the world and the region. It may prove further that while the EU is an economic giant, it remains a political dwarf on the world stage. That has been evident in Europe’s historical inability to influence the US position on the Palestinian issue.

One thing that Trump’s unilateral foreign policy tendencies will underline momentarily: The EU needs the US more and its attempt to chart an independent course is unlikely to succeed in the near future.

 

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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