Although it took years in the making, there is no disputing that the deal between the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany with Iran was a botched job in terms of its sunset clause and its narrow nuclear weapons remit. Moreover, it provided the ayatollahs with hundreds of billions to invest in weapons and bolstered the prowess of its proxies in the Arab world. It was administration of former United States president Barack Obama that led the charge with the ultimate aim of detente with the planet’s greatest sponsor of terrorism — a blunder that must be acknowledged.
It is understandable that countries aggressed by Tehran, such as its neighbouring Gulf states and Israel, are celebrating US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw. The hope is that renewed sanctions will persuade the Iranian regime to permit its ballistic missile programme to be internationally monitored and to cease its political and military interference in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.
However, the European Union (EU) and the other signatories are determined to stick by the agreement that equates to the US being out on a limb threatening the post-Second World War western alliance. Their positions are not entirely shorn of merit.
Firstly, this bad deal is a done deal. Ripping it up would have been an automatic joint response had the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) affirmed that Iran had reneged on its commitments. But that was not the case. The concerned parties argue that pulling out would undermine their credibility, making their signatures worthless and also question the legality. France, Germany and the United Kingdom would rather opt to negotiate a separate arrangement with Iran to curtail its hostile regional activities while keeping the current deal in place. Of course, that is easier said than done without the country being economically squeezed into compliance, which cannot be achieved without cooperation from the EU, Russia and China.
Secondly, Iran’s hardliners, who fought against the deal from the get-go on the grounds that the US could not be trusted, but lost the argument to the moderates. These hardliners now feel vindicated. President Hassan Rouhani sold the idea to a reluctant Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei with the promise of a bright economic future, which didn’t manifest itself because international corporations refrained from making major investments due to a climate of instability.
Rouhani, whose political legitimacy is in the balance, says as far as he is concerned the deal still stands. The EU has made a similar commitment. However, the US Treasury has warned companies dealing with Iran that they have between three to six months to wind down their business dealings, else risk being penalised by secondary sanctions.
Europe can no longer count on the US to “protect” it, said the German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “Do we want to be vassals who obey decisions taken by the United States while clinging to the hem of their trousers,” asked France’s Minister of Finance Bruno Le Maire on the Europe-1 Radio Network. Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May has reaffirmed London’s continued support for the nuclear deal.
National pride is one thing, but the bottom line is if secondary sanctions imposed on EU companies bite hard or if the deal collapses, Europe faces the loss of billions of dollars in trade as well as tens of thousands of jobs. Last year, EU exports to Iran totalled almost $13 billion (Dh47.81 billion). Britain, France and Germany are studying how their companies trading with Iran can be protected.
President of the EU Commission Jean-Claude Juncker has admitted that EU-US relations are in a state of “crisis”. Indeed, some experts predict that some European states may conclude they have more shared interests with Russia than their long-standing transatlantic partner.
Even before this current disagreement over Iran, Europeans were feeling burned by Trump’s “America First” policies that have pulled the US out of the Paris Climate Change Accord, made European steel and aluminium subject to trade tariffs and dampened any prospect for peace between Israelis and Palestinians with the relocation of the US embassy to occupied Jerusalem. “Washington no longer wants to cooperate with the rest of the world and we are at the stage where we have to replace the United States,” said Juncker.
Despite the tough rhetoric, it is hard to imagine that these traditional western allies will find themselves at opposite ends of a geopolitical divide, especially one with Iran at the centre. I’m betting that face-saving concessions will ultimately be made. The question is which side will blink first.
Linda S. Heard is an award-winning British political columnist and guest television commentator with a focus on the Middle East.