BRUSSELS — Donald Trump’s decision to scrap the Iran nuclear agreement was universally deplored, yet the move underscored the chaotic nature of the United States’ relations with the rest of the world – and, primarily, its disharmonious transatlantic relationship with the “troika” of key European allies: Britain, France and Germany.
But are the European powers truly allies of Washington, or mere junior partners and vassals?
Trump’s insistence that the six-party Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) be drastically modified or scrapped has been depicted by critics as another case of the former reality star trusting his gut (or neoconservative friends) and acting impulsively, ignoring the advice of “elder statesmen” like German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron.
Yet in the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal, Europe has struggled to formulate a coherent response to Trump’s unilateralism. Instead, the U.S. allies have veered between promises of openly defying renewed anti-Iran sanctions and admissions that they are powerless in convincing European companies to continue their business with the Islamic Republic.
If the Europeans hesitate in responding to our demands, Iran is entitled to resuming its nuclear activities. When we find out the #JCPOA has no benefits, one of our options is to resume cancelled activities.
— Khamenei.ir (@khamenei_ir) May 23, 2018
Merkel made this clear following Washington’s withdrawal from the deal, repeatedly stressing that Trump’s bellicose moves are no reason to call into question the “transatlantic partnership” between Europe and the U.S. Last Wednesday, she told Germany’s lower house of parliament:
Despite all the difficulties that we have these days, the transatlantic relationship is and remains paramount… But this transatlantic relationship also must be able to deal with differences in opinion — especially, as we can see these days, with the withdrawal of the United States from the nuclear deal with Iran.”
On Wednesday, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas commented after meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that Washington and Berlin “are pursuing two entirely separate paths” in regards to their stance on Iran.
Yet Iran has been far from satisfied by such lukewarm expressions of good intent by the Europeans.
In a series of tweets Wednesday, the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei bluntly stated that Tehran expects nothing less from the troika than a firm guarantee of Iranian interests, lest Iran itself abandon the JCPOA and resume its stalled activities.
We do not have any disputes with [Britain, France and Germany]; however, we do not trust them either because of their past actions …Over the course of 2 years, US violated #JCPOA, several times, while the Europeans remained silent. These 3 European countries should prove that they won’t be as dishonest & untrustworthy as they were during nuclear talks in 2004-2005. Europe needs to compensate for it,”
He added that Iran expects Europe to compensate Iran for any loss of oil revenue due to U.S. actions and “guarantee the total sale of Iran’s oil,” that the EU not interfere in Iran’s regional affairs or missile program, and that business transactions with Iran be guaranteed, among other issues addressed.
True to his mantra of “America First,” Trump has played the cards of financial and political aggression while giving short shift to European interests, transatlantic unity, and the traditional rules of the global order itself.
Gambling on its ability to unilaterally erode and destroy multilateral accords like the JCPOA, the White House has displayed the continued vitality of its coercive blackmail methods and revealed the impotency of its European counterparts.
The U.S. doggedly pursues regime change
While Europe has struggled to formulate a policy to counter Washington’s sanctions ultimatum, the Trump Administration has wasted no time pressing Tehran to accept what amounts to unconditional surrender and the comprehensive disavowal of a political identity that has characterized Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Monday’s speech by Pompeo, titled “After the Deal: A New Iran Strategy,” demanded Iran’s sacrifice of numerous core interests, ranging from its support for Shia allies in Iraq and Lebanon to its participation in the Syrian civil war.
Pompeo also vowed that if Iran failed to heed Washington’s dictates and reverse its foreign and domestic policies, the country would face the “strongest sanctions in history.”
The detailed grocery-list of capitulations is unprecedented, especially in the absence of war, and underscores a clear commitment to effecting regime change in Iran.
The demands are also remarkable because the nuclear accord had softened Iran to a striking degree — allowing the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to double its inspections work since 2013, all the while relying on digital surveillance methods that would allow the U.S. to meticulously map out Iranian military targets were it to come into possession of IAEA inspectors’ data, as was the case with Iraq.
Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, aptly remarked:
I think this is war, but not by name … There is really no strategy there. We heard a long list of complaints combined with a maximizing pressure in order to achieve objectives that everyone knows are unachievable. Where does that get you? Pressure combined with unachievable objectives is a path to confrontation, by design.”
Meanwhile in Moscow, Chairman of the State Duma Committee for Foreign Affairs Leonid Slutsky blasted the White House policy course as a method to “twist Europe’s arms and press through a ‘good deal’ named after Trump.” Slutsky himself was sanctioned by the Obama administration in 2014 for his alleged influence on the Russian government’s policies toward Ukraine. Continuing, Slutsky said:
U.S. threats to impose sanctions against EU companies for cooperation with Tehran look like flagrant and unabashed blackmail. The U.S., which violated all its international commitments, now in fact through threats and ultimatums is forcing its European partners to choose the same irresponsible path. Washington is trying to impose its own will not only on mythical adversaries but also on its allies.”
Noting Europe’s recent history of obedience to Washington’s dictates, he added:
This is an absolutely destructive line which the U.S. has used on its Russian track, unfortunately, when the EU at the expense of its own economic interests was forced to back U.S. sanctions.”
Europe’s feeble response
In response to Pompeo, EU foreign policy and security chief Federica Mogherini has waged an admirable resistance to the U.S. ultimatums. In a statement released following Pompeo’s speech, she stressed that “there is no alternative” to the JCPOA and remarked:
This deal belongs to the international community, having been endorsed by the United Nations Security Council. The international community expects all sides to keep the commitments they made more than two years ago.”
While Brussels’ defense of international diplomacy is admirable, such sentiments are cold comfort to the companies that hoped to expand trade with Iran following the 2015 deal and are now confronted with a mere 90 to 180 days to “wind-down” their newly-inked contracts with Iran.
Mogherini’s words must also ring hollow to Airbus, which had hoped to fulfill multi-billion dollar purchase orders from Iranian commercial airliners. The high-flying executives of the European aerospace firm are unlikely to place themselves in the crosshairs of U.S. Treasury Department sanctions for the sake of honoring the will of an “international community” dominated by Washington.
While some countries have made modest advances decoupling from the U.S. dollar and financial sector as a response to Washington’s ever-increasing use of sanctions, the truth remains that the U.S. dollar – not the Petro, ruble, riyal, lira, renminbi, Bitcoin or Euro – remains the preeminent currency in global commerce.
Notwithstanding the resolutions and protests emanating from Berlin, Paris, Brussels, or even Beijing, U.S. sanctions remain a potent weapon of financial mass destruction and deterrent for those seeking involvement with the besieged Iranian economy. The spectacular collapse of Chinese telecoms manufacturer and alleged sanctions-breaker ZTE offers clear proof of this unfortunate reality.
Calling Europe’s bluff
Earlier this month, anti-Iran hawk and newly-appointed U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell bluntly called European leaders’ bluff hours after landing in the country, commanding through Twitter that “German companies doing business in Iran should wind down operations immediately.”
As @realDonaldTrump said, US sanctions will target critical sectors of Iran’s economy. German companies doing business in Iran should wind down operations immediately.
— Richard Grenell (@RichardGrenell) May 8, 2018
Days later, in an interview with weekly Bild am Sonntag, German Foreign Minister Maas conceded that Europe is largely unable to protect its companies planning to trade with Iran:
I don’t see a simple solution to protect companies from all the risks of American sanctions.”
French energy multinational Total signaled its own exit from Iran on May 16, proving European firms’ hesitancy over crossing Washington.
Lorne Baring, chief investment officer of asset management firm B Capital SA, told Reuters:
There might be some element of arbitration for the European companies in Iran, but ultimately nobody will want to get on the wrong side of U.S. sanctions.”
If the political will existed, Europe would be able to credibly respond to Washington’s domineering policies. To start, it can file grievances with the World Trade Organization against aggressive U.S. protectionism. Brussels can also take practical steps guaranteeing legal protection to European companies, as was the case in 1996 when EU policymakers successfully resisted Washington’s attempts to penalize European companies trading with Cuba.
On Sunday, French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire invoked the 1996 precedent, urging that Brussels step up measures to “take charge ourselves of the cost of any potential sanctions paid by firms, which could therefore be paid for on their behalf by the European Union.”
Illustrating the acute unease of European business elites, Le Maire pointedly remarked:
Are we going to allow the United States to be the economic policeman of the world? The answer is no.”
Tehran is well-acquainted with the aggressive arrogance of an opponent it used to describe as the “Great Satan,” and its large economy remains quite resilient despite successive rounds of U.S. sanctions. But the country remains in dire need of a reprieve from years of suffocating financial pressures. The nuclear accord required Tehran’s fulfillment of numerous obligations, yet both Iran and Europe looked forward to the lifting of sanctions and the carving-out of new breathing room for lucrative trade. But the ability of the EU to cover the vast costs of U.S. sanctions on such a large, resource-rich nation as Iran is highly doubtful.
With such hopes dashed by Washington, Europe can only make humble legal moves and voice dissatisfaction with the unfair nature of of the sanctions — protests that remain, for the most part, inconsequential.
Europe’s vassal status won’t be shaken easily
Europe is confronted with a choice: either pursue trade with Iran and the other signatories to the JCPOA, Russia and China, or preserve its existing ties with the United States (not to mention Israel and the Gulf Arab states).
Unless Washington suddenly relents on its threats to punish “the disloyal,” Europe is unlikely to make such vast sacrifices on Tehran’s behalf. At best, Europe may try to temper Washington’s demands for a “new” JCPOA that would curb Iran’s missile program, “regional ambitions,” and support for the so-called “Shia crescent” – an option that Tehran has already waved off as ridiculous.
Europe is a major geopolitical power in its own right, yet its own fractured nature, internal discord, and a rise in far-right nationalist passions renders it susceptible to the feared “divide-and-conquer” tactics of the United States.
Lest we need a reminder, Washington remains the primary war-chief and bankroller of a Western security architecture rooted in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
Such a balance of forces ensures that Washington’s leash remains firmly affixed to the European project. Trump tweets, and EU countries jump, squirm, and grovel for lenient treatment.
While European rhetoric and hand-wringing indicate growing tension with its Washington overseers, it remains unlikely that Europe will be able, in the near future, to loosen the shackles of U.S. imperialist hegemony that have held it in bondage since the end of the Second World War.
Top Photo | Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif arrives for a meeting of the foreign ministers from Britain, France and Germany and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, at the Europa building in Brussels, Tuesday, May 15, 2018. Major European powers sought to keep Iran committed to the deal despite deep misgivings about Tehran’s Middle East politics and President Donald Trump’s vehement opposition. (AP/Olivier Matthys)
Elliott Gabriel is a former staff writer for teleSUR English and a MintPress News contributor based in Quito, Ecuador. He has taken extensive part in advocacy and organizing in the pro-labor, migrant justice and police accountability movements of Southern California and the state’s Central Coast.