Will Europe and America Diverge on Iran?
After three months in office, Donald Trump’s Iran policy is slowly taking shape and no U.S. ally is paying more attention than Europe. Since Inauguration Day, I have spent a total of one month across the pond meeting with political and military officials, corporate executives, and civil society. Assessments of what Trump might do were wide-ranging, but it was also clear that the current trajectory does not bode well for congruence between Europe’s well-known position and America’s emerging policy. Three such takeaways stood out during my travels.
First, Europe and America do not appear aligned on key details of what constitutes an Iran policy. In each of my conversations with EU stakeholders, they emphasized their desire for increased trade and investment with Tehran; more diplomacy with Iran to peacefully resolve conflicts; and preserving the JCPOA in its current form.
While it is still too early to definitively state the Trump administration’s position on these issues, the early returns do not look promising. It has no discernable plans to pursue American trade and investment with Iran, or make it easier for other countries to do so. Rather than attempt to resolve conflicts with Iran, it has put it “on notice,” called it the “greatest long term threat to stability” in the Middle East, and ramped up military intervention in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen with the expressed purpose of countering Iran. The JCPOA remains “the worst deal ever negotiated,” and one of Trump’s top counter-proliferation aides said America will adhere to it “until otherwise decided.” Perhaps tellingly, there is no apparent desire on the part of the White House to utilize bilateral U.S.-Iran communication channels establish by their predecessors.
Second, while U.S. policy congeals, most European stakeholders remain in wait-and-see mode before making policy decisions – rather than taking steps to shape American policy. To be fair, Europe has not been completely idle over the past three months. After her first trip to Trump’s White House, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said she secured verbal assurances that Washington will fully implement the JCPOA. Top European officials and embassies have also conducted sustained outreach to key offices on Capitol Hill outlining their views on what constitutes both adherence to the JCPOA, and an Iran policy that maximizes opportunities for peaceful solutions to conflict.
But as we learned during the George W. Bush administration’s push for war with Iraq, strongly worded statements and pleading for restraint behind closed doors is not enough. Washington must see the costs of its potential divergence up front. I saw no discernible evidence that Europe is taking steps to craft an independent Iran policy if Trump shuns diplomacy – despite requiring little political will or space to do so. For example, the EU could easily queue up a new formal process on its blocking regulations that pushed back against U.S. extraterritorial sanctions in the 1990s. Europe could also take the lead in assembling a coalition of likeminded nations both within its continent and abroad who have a strategic interest in maintaining the JCPOA and boosting legal trade with Iran – with or without Washington’s blessing.
All of this leads to the third and final takeaway: As U.S. policy seemingly diverges, EU leverage remains on the shelf. It was clear to me that Europe sincerely does want to save the JCPOA, increase trade and investment with Tehran, and advance diplomatic processes that include Iran. What remains unclear to me is whether the EU foreign policy apparatus is bold enough to pull this off while maximizing leverage with regard to its competing interests, including but not limited to: Relations with America, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. For this reason, Europe has thus far kept its cards close to its chest regarding relations with Iran in the Trump era.
However, this balancing act has seemingly paralyzed Europe for the time being, leaving other countries to fill the policy formulation vacuum. The status quo is not sustainable. Washington, Moscow, and Riyadh will try to force the EU to choose between them – as well as Iran – which in turn requires fleshing out and utilizing its relative leverage. Successful policy execution is predicated on walking and chewing gum at the same time, and Europe must be firm in communicating to all parties what specific actions are against its interests – and the leverage it is willing to use to protect them.
Europe should be applauded for its verbal support for peace, diplomacy, and trade with Iran. However, this has yet to be matched by tangible action and firm policy conducive to those ends. Looking ahead, we may rapidly approach a point in which the EU will need to serve as a bridge-builder that can help defuse tensions between Washington and Tehran in order to protect its own interests. It cannot do so while sitting on the sidelines or reflexively choosing sides. Europe is wise to work with America in an effort to prevent diverging policies. Given the current trajectory, it would be wiser to simultaneously chart a course that utilizes the full range of European power to minimize the possibility of Iran-related confrontation.