Divided on Iran

Hany Ghoraba
Sunday 27 May 2018

US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal with Iran has led to a breakdown in US-European relations

Withdrawing from the nuclear deal with Iran was on US President Donald Trump’s election agenda, as he had expressed his discontent at its contents since its signing in 2015.

It was thus only a matter of time before he found the right moment to announce his decision to unilaterally withdraw from the deal made by his predecessor Barack Obama.

The deal that Obama held up as a glorious moment of his presidency was in tatters in less than a year and a half of Trump’s presidency.

Trump believes that the deal, while it has temporarily halted Iran’s nuclear ambitions by limiting its nuclear centrifuges to about 5,060 and disposing of 98 per cent of its enriched uranium reserves for 10 years, is not enough to curb its unbending determination to acquire nuclear weapons in the future.

While the international community applauded the nuclear deal with Iran in 2015, many countries objected, and these countries, among them Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, have now applauded Trump’s breaking the deal.

There have been many opposing views to Trump’s decision in the US, especially from the Democratic Party, which believes that it could be a mistake of historic proportions.

On the other hand, others say that Trump may have had valid reasons for breaking the deal, despite the unorthodox method he chose to do so.

The nuclear deal did not encourage Iran to adopt a more peaceful and cooperative stance towards its neighbours in the region, these people say, and in fact the opposite has been true.

Since 2015, Iran has taken up a hostile stance in the region that has led it to be involved more directly in the domestic affairs of countries including Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen as well as Gulf States such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain.

This was done while fomenting violence and supporting terrorist activities in the region, with countries such as Syria and Yemen that host Hizbullah and the Houthi rebels receiving large amounts of money and weapons to carry on their fight against Iran’s opponents.

European Union countries such as Germany, the United Kingdom and France have expressed their disapproval of the American withdrawal from the deal and declared their commitment to preserving its terms with Iran.

This stance, which appears as a political decision, also has an economic perspective behind it. France would lose an oil contract for exploration in Iran amounting to $5 billion, for example, were it to abandon the deal, as well as a potential deal for 100 Airbus passenger planes that Iran has ordered.

Similarly, Germany and the United Kingdom have forged many economic agreements with Iran based on the deal.

As a result, the EU countries involved in the deal are keen on preserving it as they could lose out heavily if it were cancelled. Trump has also not presented viable alternatives to the deal, even though the US may also lose a $20 billion deal for planes signed with the US giant Boeing.

However, Trump has vowed that his administration will target companies and countries dealing with Iran in six months’ time as a warning of how things may proceed, though it is unclear if he will carry this through if his European allies continue to abide by the deal.

The UK, Germany and France are the cornerstones of the US-European alliance, and a feud with them will find the United States in a diplomatic war with all the major powers in the world, including the Russians and Chinese who have also condemned the deal breaking.

There could be a showdown between the US and Europe in a similar manner to what occurred over Cuba when the US imposed a blockade against the island in 1962.

In 1996, the EU issued a “blocking statute” aimed at countering US sanctions against Cuba, and EU officials are said to be modifying this for use in the current crisis with Iran, thus countering US restrictions on EU firms conducting business with the Iranians.

On 18 May, the president of the European Commission said that “we have a duty, the commission and the European Union, to do what we can to protect our European businesses, especially SMEs,” from US sanctions against Iran.

This clear statement clarifies the fact that business is the first priority of the European Union and security issues are secondary.

The EU has also allowed European investment banks to finance projects in Iran, and it has urged European governments to conduct “one-off” transfers to Iran’s Central Bank to assist Iran in receiving oil revenues.

The European stance means that a possible war against Iran targeting its nuclear facilities will not be conducted through America’s traditional European allies.

At the same time, it will face resistance from superpowers such as Russia and China, especially the former which has been a major contractor and technology provider for all Iran’s nuclear facilities.

This means that any potential war on Iran will only be possible through US regional allies such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and possibly Israel. That said, a war on Iran may not be on Trump’s immediate agenda, as he would rather weaken the Iranian regime than become engaged in a fully-fledged war against it without international support.

Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal was not as haphazard as it may appear because he realises that the US does not possess some casus belli against Iran at present, even with Iran’s rampant interference in the region.

Accordingly, he would rather weaken the Iranian regime by depriving it of the means of financing its hostile activities in the region than of risking all-out war.

However, the latter goal is unlikely to be attained without EU support, and accordingly Trump might have to resort to other options, including presenting a modified deal to Iran that guarantees that the Iranian regime will not pursue its nuclear weapons plans as soon as the ten-year deal is over as well as stopping its ballistic-missile development and funding terrorist activities in the region.

These will be hard goals to reach without EU support, but it is also not in the best interests of the European Union, with all its vast economic, political and military ties with the United States, to ignore US demands in favour of economic ties with Iran.

The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring: The Long and Winding Road to Democracy.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 May 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly with headline: Divided on Iran

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