It’s no secret that many of President-elect Donald Trump’s advisers favor killing the Iran nuclear deal. But to hear Europe tell it, they will not blindly follow suit. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini recently said Europe might line up with Russia against any efforts by the Trump administration to scuttle the deal; there’s no way it can be re-opened bilaterally; it’s impossible to demand fresh concessions from Iran; and the bloc won’t feel obliged to re-impose sanctions on Tehran if Washington walks away from the agreement. For these comments, Europe should be praised. But should it be believed? The past 20 years demonstrate that some skepticism is warranted.
There are many reasons to doubt Europe’s willingness to craft an Iran policy independent of Washington’s preferences, but three stand out above all else. First, what recourse does the EU actually have at its disposal? What tangible costs is it willing and able to impose on the U.S. if steps are taken that damage EU interests? It’s not at all clear, and I’ve pressed numerous current and former European diplomats on this point during private conversations over the past two months. Without fail, each of them has shrugged and conceded that if push comes to shove, the alliance with Washington is more important than their relations with Tehran. Europe knows it, Iran knows it, and the incoming Trump administration knows it.
Frankly, this knowledge was the linchpin of U.S. policy toward Iran under George W. Bush and first-term Barack Obama: You can do business with Washington or Tehran, but not both. The EU relented. If Trump pursues identical measures, why should we believe that Europe’s response would be any different? Thus far, he has openly dismissed EU interests when they don’t align with Washington’s, and the backbone of his campaign was putting “America First.” Why should we believe that his position would change?
Moreover, Europe’s track record on diverging from America’s Iran policy doesn’t bode well. Not since 1996 – when the EU was preparing to take the U.S. to the WTO over Iran sanctions, but ultimately settled via direct negotiations – has Brussels threatened to impose costs on Washington over diverging policy interests. Since then, you’d be hard pressed to find any geopolitical issue of importance in which Europe has openly deviated from the U.S. Even when Washington makes painfully and obviously bad decisions like invading Iraq, most of Europe did not actively oppose the war after America pressured them and warned of worsened relations. Britain and Poland were foolish enough to join the U.S. coalition that kicked off the Iraq disaster.
Europe’s deference to American preferences also highlights another inconvenient truth: the Iran deal was only possible once Washington and Tehran started substantively engaging in 2013. From 2003 through 2005, the EU led nuclear negotiations with Iran that America refused to join – and hammered out a deal that Washington refused to accept, forcing Europe to back down. Reality is that on Iran-related issues, Europe long ago outsourced its sovereignty to the United States, and there’s no discernable reason to believe that will change in the foreseeable future.
Finally, it’s important to remember that all politics is local: Upcoming elections in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia, and Portugal breed uncertainty and caution in key European countries. Moreover, the United Kingdom is still in turmoil with no end in sight after its vote to leave the European Union. This reduces the likelihood that all 27 EU member states will form a cohesive bloc to take on Washington if it tries to kill the Iran deal. Moreover, politicians in most countries are generally more risk averse in the run up to elections. As Barack Obama inadvertently whispered into a hot mic four years ago: “After my election I have more flexibility.” By the time the dust settles after nine elections in Europe, it will be mid-2017 at the earliest and Trump’s Iran policy will almost certainly be locked in. The window to potentially influence that policy is now, and it’s unclear if Europe is in a position to speak and act with a cohesive voice.
This begs the question: What can the EU do to save the Iran deal, avoid another war in the Middle East, and help prevent an already tragic refugee crisis in Europe from spiraling out of control? If Trump chooses to pursue a policy that damages European interests, the bloc could make clear to Washington the costs of doing so – first privately in an effort to provide Trump with an opportunity to save face, and then going to the megaphones publicly if private outreach doesn’t bear fruit. There are a variety of options at Europe’s disposal. Two in particular could send a strong message.
First, the EU could announce the establishment an office in Brussels and the capitals of all 27 EU capitals tasked with long-term planning of alternative international banking and financial options outside the existing U.S.-controlled infrastructure. Europe might consider telling the U.S.: Overusing secondary sanctions that extend to non-U.S. persons will not be tolerated when Iran is fulfilling its end of the nuclear bargain, and American actions to that end could threaten its central role in the global financial system. Outgoing Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew recently warned of this in his exit memo, and Trump’s Washington may think twice before damaging European interests if there’s an even greater cost to its own.
To that end, Europe could also consider announcing the formation of a joint EU bank with no ties to the U.S. financial system in which all 27 member states have an equal stake. Run out of Brussels, such a bank might serve as the clearinghouse for transactions with countries that Washington seeks to isolate in ways that damage core European interests. Because it’s unrealistic to expect an alternative global financial system to be quickly cobbled together, the EU should clarify that the foundation and takeoff operations for both of these initiatives would be established during Trump’s four years in office – thereby giving him space to take European interests into account, while making clear the long-term ramifications if he does not.
Mogherini’s recent remarks were an important first step in letting Trump’s team know that Europe’s expectation is for the Iran deal to be honored and respected. The problem is that few in Washington understand what Brussels might do if Trump abandons the accord. Unless the EU clearly communicates to America how it will push back, it will likely get pushed around. Europe is wise to prioritize continued collaboration with the U.S. on Iran policy, but given the rhetoric of Trump and the track records of his top Iran advisors, it shouldn’t bank on it. There are courageous voices calling for the EU to go its own way if Washington takes actions that undermine global security. It remains to be seen whether or not Brussels will listen.