Europe must close ranks against Iran’s threats
By BOBBY GHOSH | Bloomberg Opinion | Published: September 26, 2019
The scales are finally falling from European eyes on Iran. In a joint statement on Monday, Germany, France and Britain held the Islamic Republic responsible for the recent attacks on Saudi Aramco facilities, adding that “no other explanation is plausible.”
At the United Nations General Assembly in New York, European leaders used their meetings with President Hassan Rouhani to pile on pressure. France’s President Emmanuel Macron urged him to meet with President Donald Trump; Rouhani, under strict instructions from his boss, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, demurred. He trotted out the usual preconditions for talks with the U.S. — a return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and an end to sanctions — even though these were already a dead letter.
To make matters worse for Tehran, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson endorsed Trump’s view that Iran should make a new deal with world powers, covering not only its nuclear ambitions — the remit of the JCPOA — but also other threats that it poses.
In response, Iran professed to be upset with the Europeans, accusing them of lacking the “strength or willpower to counter U.S. bullying.”
This reaction is, to say the least, uncharitable. Since Trump pulled the U.S. out of the JCPOA last year, the European signatories have given every appearance of wanting to honor their end of the bargain with Iran. First, they urged Europe-based companies to keep investing in Iran, even invoking a European Union statute forbidding them “from complying with the extraterritorial effects of U.S. sanctions.” When that failed, they created a workaround, a “special purpose vehicle” to protect trade with Iran from the sanctions.
The Europeans also haven’t stopped pressing Trump to ease his “maximum pressure” campaign against the Islamic Republic. In recent weeks, Macron has taken the lead, proposing a package that includes a $15 billion line of credit.
Meanwhile, the Europeans have adopted an indulgent attitude toward Iran’s atrocious behavior — its attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, its defiance of EU sanctions against giving material assistance to the genocidal regime in Syria, even its brazen capture of European nationals for use as hostages. They expressed only mild reproach at the regime’s breach of uranium-enrichment limits imposed by the JCPOA.
But given the regime’s penchant for escalating provocation, it was bound to test the limits of European sympathy, and then to go a step too far. That happened with the attacks on Saudi Arabia’s most important oil installations — which were in effect an assault on the world economy.
Trump may have helped the European change of heart by his repeated offers of talks with Rouhani — without preconditions. His firing of Iran hawk John Bolton as national security adviser also eased any lingering suspicions that the president was looking for an excuse to go to war with the Islamic Republic.
What next for the Europeans? France’s president remains keen to play intermediary, but Khamenei’s treatment of the last world leader to try — Japan’s Shinzo Abe — should temper Macron’s optimism. Even as Abe was visiting Tehran with hopes of opening discussions, the Iranians engineered an attack on a Japanese-flagged oil tanker. To rub it in, Khamenei embarrassed his guest by claiming, in a tweet, that Abe agreed with the Iranian view of the U.S.
The supreme leader is not man for subtlety, and he will need a more forceful demonstration that the Europeans will no longer tolerate his hostile behavior. The quickest way to do this is to join the U.S. effort to protect the sea lanes and oil infrastructure in and around the Persian Gulf. Britain is already signed up for some of the naval duties, and Johnson has said he’s open to helping Saudi Arabia guard its infrastructure from Iranian attack.
The other Europeans should follow suit and close the Western ranks against the Iranian threat to commerce and trade.
They should also signal an end to their tolerance for the regime’s nuclear brinkmanship. Iran’s breach of enrichment limits gives the JCPOA’s signatories cause enough to impose their own economic sanctions. These may not add much bite to the American sanctions, but the symbolism would be useful.
For Iran, the loss of European indulgence leaves only the two other JCPOA signatories, China and Russia. But the regime in Tehran has long known not to expect too much material support from those quarters: That is why Iran has never pressured them to try to save the nuclear deal with the urgency it has brought to bear on the Europeans. It cannot have escaped Iranian attention that neither Beijing nor Moscow has bent over to create a special purpose vehicle to circumvent American sanctions.
If the loss of Western sympathy now compels a desperate regime to demand more of its eastern and northern friends, it will almost certainly meet with more disappointment. Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin may criticize Trump’s abrogation of the nuclear deal, but Chinese and Russian companies have little enthusiasm to run the gamut of American — and hopefully, European — economic sanctions on Iran.
Bobby Ghosh is a columnist and member of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.