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Iran Nuclear Agreement – Why A Transatlantic Crisis Is Just What We Need

Analyses - 9 May 2018

In the months leading to Trump's decision on the Iran nuclear deal, Europeans have been somewhat divided in two camps. For some, standing against the aspirations of the Trump administration was imperative. A European plan B was thus to be set up, and countermeasures to be determined in order to neutralize the possible return of American sanctions. Such theses clearly appealed to Ms Mogherini. France, Germany and the United Kingdom followed another line. The three major European powers tried to convince the White House not to dismantle the Vienna Agreement. To do so, while defending the Agreement, they had to acknowledge the necessity of post-JCPOA negotiations and to tighten their attitude towards other aspects of Iran's policy, such as its ballistic program and its regional behavior.
One could have thought that this strategy, despite being unsuccessful, would at least allow to reach a somewhat “moderated” American withdrawal from the Agreement, i.e. under conditions allowing for its survival for the other signatory parties. Finally, the decision announced on 8 May - a symbolic date for the transatlantic relationship - is a real slap in the face for the main European powers. President Trump indeed opted for a brutal withdrawal, the consequences of which are drastic constraints on other parties. This attitude alone, which entirely rejects the efforts of America's closest allies, justifies a transatlantic crisis from Europeans.

"Donald Trump's decision highlights a profound difference of philosophy between the two shores of the Atlantic with regards to international security."

Beyond the discord displayed between the major European capitals and Washington, two more fundamental reasons must lead the Europeans to fully reconsider the transatlantic relationship.

First, Donald Trump's decision highlights a profound difference of philosophy between the two shores of the Atlantic with regards to international security. By choosing to leave the Agreement when Iran was complying with its obligations and the other signatories wished to maintain it, the United States have once again chosen unilateralism. While a state is always allowed to opt out of an agreement, the Americans were bound to respect the resolution of the United Nations Security Council, which gave formal legal force to the Vienna Agreement. America has therefore broken international legality. This situation is somewhat reminiscent of what happened in 2003, with the invasion of Iraq.

As in 2003, American unilateralism is an important factor of instability in international relations. If a major country like the United States fails to honor its commitments, how can it be believed that international agreements are a real guarantee of collective security? What is most troubling to the Europeans is that in a way, Trump's position on the JCPOA justifies a posteriori Russia's annexation of Crimea. Indeed, Mr Trump shows the same disrespect for a crucial multilateral instrument (the Vienna Agreement) than the one displayed by Mr Putin with regards to the Paris Charter establishing the European post-Cold War order.

"It is hard to ignore that the American withdrawal plays in favor of forces in Iran who advocate for both confrontation in the region and the toughening of the regime’s political line."

Instability for international relations involves increased insecurity for Europe: it is the second main reason why Europeans should strongly express their disagreement with Trump's America. The American President justified his decision by referring to the risks that the possibility for Iran to quickly acquire an atomic weapon would entail for the Middle East. This risk cannot be ruled out altogether, but the JCPOA’s aim was precisely to control it. It is hard to ignore that the American withdrawal plays in favor of forces in Iran who advocate for both confrontation in the region and the toughening of the regime’s political line. There are even reasons to fear that it may cause the Iranian regime to resume nuclear activities, which, until now at least, were no longer part of its agenda. By denouncing the Agreement, the Trump administration will also evidently encourage actors who want an escalation in the region.

American behavior seems even more wreckless given that it is coupled with a clear reticence to use force when necessary. Mr Trump combines the unilateralism of the Bush administration with the neo-isolationism of the Obama administration. The fact that Donald Trump was preparing to dismantle the Iranian Nuclear Agreement at the same time as when he announced the withdrawal of American forces in Syria should also be puzzling to Europeans. Yet we can never exclude a potential swerve from the Trump administration that might go towards an excess of interventionism. 

Overall, the recent evolutions confirm what Ms. Merkel had announced: the time has come for Europeans to rely only on themselves. The only good news in this context is that, in comparison with the 2003 crisis, Europeans seems rather united on this matter. The bad news is that, realising the damages caused by the Iraqi invasion, Bush, at the end of his mandate, made an effort to heal the wounds in the transtlantic relation. One cannot expect such a move from the Trump administration. 
What can be done? 

  • This time, there should be a firm line towards Washington, with no change of heart down the road in a few months or so. No need to feed the debate about the Vienna Agreement, but we should stick to the simple mantra: any country, especially a great country, should abide by its commitments ; 
  • President Rohani seems to want to remain supportive of the Agreement if Europeans manage to ensure the survival of the deal’s economic aspects. It might very well be that Europeans’ leeway is more limited than what the Iranians want to believe. In order to remain credible, Europe is now obliged to deliver on means, if not results ; 
  • The regional allies of the West currently congratulate themselves on Trump’s very “anti-Iran” stance. However, they might soon realize the reversal risks the Trump administration might expose them to. Furthermore, it is European powers’ task to explain clearly that supporting the Iran Nuclear Agreement does not mean agreeing on Iran’s regional politics, which should clearly be denounced ;
  • Finally, Mr Trump’s decision should be a wake-up call for Europe. On the longer term, the main lesson learnt from this decision lies in the necessity for Europe to finally give itself the means of a real strategic autonomy.


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