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The Long-Suffering Europeans Trying to Save the Iran Deal

Trump and Netanyahu seem intent on kicking over the EU's carefully built international sandcastles. But can Europe play the long game?

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Three years before the forging of the current Iran nuclear deal, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stunned the international community at the United Nations 67th General Assembly by presenting a cartoon-style drawing of a nuclear bomb and advocating a tougher stance vis-à-vis Tehran. This week, some 24 hours after Israeli missiles allegedly destroyed joint Syrian-Iranian military sites in Syria, Netanyahu gave an encore: a Kafkaesque 20-minute PowerPoint presentation to transmit just one message–that the nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is based on false information. Declaring in English that “Iran lied, big time” by failing to admit to a covert nuclear weapons program, he appeared to be targeting not the Israeli public but President Donald Trump, who is currently considering withdrawing the U.S. from the JCPOA by May 12.

Trump considers the JCPOA the “worst and most one-sided transaction the U.S. has ever entered into.” But how did Netanyahu’s public display of supposedly “new and conclusive proof” of Iranian bad faith resonate in the European Union’s headquarters, and in London, Paris and Berlin (the EU-3), co-signatories of the JCPOA? And how do they feel about President Trump’s threats to torpedo the agreement? After all, this is an important question for three reasons. First, the JCPOA was first and foremost brokered as a result of the proactive engagement of the EU-3 and Federica Mogherini, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign and Security Affairs and Vice President of the European Commission. Second, the EU-3 and the EU as such have been the most vocal supporters of the agreement ever since it entered into force. Third, for the last three years, their approach has revolved around one basic assumption: that institutions of international legitimacy shall be the main arena to address and resolve any potential disputes that may arise in the context of the implementation of the JCPOA.

In a rare show of foreign-policy unity, the leaders of the United Kingdom, France and Germany left it to Mogherini to respond to Netanyahu’s allegations. The JCPOA, Mogherini said, “was put in place exactly because there was no trust between the parties,” as “otherwise we would not have required a nuclear deal to be put in place.” The wording allowed her—and hence, the EU—to refrain from either questioning or endorsing Netanyahu, to study the purportedly new information, to continue to fight for the validity of the JCPOA, and to buy time.

Calling for parties to wait for the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) assessment, as “the only impartial, international organisation that is in charge of monitoring Iran’s nuclear commitments,” may have seemed a tepid response, but had a specific purpose. By referring to the IAEA, a move that was subsequently echoed by the EU-3, Mogherini’s goal was to remind both Netanyahu and more importantly Trump of the existence of credible and hitherto reliable verification mechanisms and an admittedly strict and robust monitoring regimen. As several observers have pointed out, the material presented by Netanyahu on Monday did not seem to differ meaningfully from what the IAEA had reported before the deal. The deal itself was predicated on the notion that Iran undoubtedly had a secret weapons program but would not be forced to acknowledge it under the terms of the agreement. Moreover, Mogherini’s reference to the mandate and functioning of the IAEA and the Joint Commission of the JCPOA was meant to call to mind their overwhelmingly recognized legitimacy, as well as to remind any party of its duty to submit any information of Iran’s potential non-compliance to them—rather than, presumably, airing raw intelligence documents in a livestreamed theatrical PowerPoint event.

But time is running out, and May 12 is fast approaching. Well aware of the little time left, both French president Macron and German chancellor Merkel, during their recent visits to Washington, discussed the agreement with Trump–and, shortly thereafter, with British prime minister May–reaffirming their commitment to sticking with it. In an effort to throw the U.S. president an acceptable bone, they admitted that there are “important elements that the deal does not cover, but which we need to address”, hoping that this would help preserve the JCPOA. This joint statement follows up on a proposal voiced by Macron just a few days earlier, according to which the EU, the EU-3 and the U.S. should agree to block any Iranian nuclear activity beyond 2025, and address both Tehran’s ballistic missile program and Iran’s increasingly concerning role in the Middle East.

Yet hoping the French proposal may rescue the JCPOA seems naïve at this point. Netanyahu’s provocative presentation was said to have been encouraged by newly-confirmed Secretary of State Pompeo during his visit to Israel just hours before, perhaps to provide obvious pretext for Trump, who has long denigrated the deal. Also, the proposal ignores the fact that Tehran would hardly feel inclined to agree to any amendment that would tighten rather than sweeten the JCPOA. Therefore, it seems as if all Brussels and the EU-3 are left with is merely hoping that Trump may, after all, change his mind and prolong the sanctions waiver by another 120 days, so they can use that period to come up with more convincing arguments that the JCPOA is the best of all possible deals and does not make the U.S. look weak.

As is so often the case in foreign policy, the events revolving around Trump’s upcoming decision demonstrate that the EU does not have a plan B. This time, however, it cannot be blamed, given that neither the U.S. nor Iran seem to be prepared, let alone willing, to even ponder a compromise. U.S. withdrawal is likely to generate renewed escalation, despite European attempts at damage control: Iran’s president Rouhani already announced that if the U.S. administration does not live up to its commitments, the Iranian government will react decisively. Iran’s hardliners, who would be emboldened by a U.S. exit from the JCPOA, are likely to declare the agreement null and void and produce or purchase any military equipment Iran needed to defend itself, thus accelerating the already alarming arms race in the Middle East and, at the same time, motivating Israel and the U.S. to opt for a military response.

Trump would consider his suspicions—that Iran is unreliable, hostile, and a threat to global peace—confirmed, even though, at the end of the day, it is the White House’s own brinkmanship endangering the Middle East’s fragile security order.

The EU has proven in this region, through its skillful participation in brokering the JCPOA in the first place and by being recognized by all players as a partner for dialogue, that it can in fact make a difference on the world stage. Its strategy now is simple, and the same as in the past: focusing on and thus recognizing the legitimacy and power of international institutions and prioritizing dialogue over unilateral and hasty decisions. Whether this works in the short run, in the face of rather different and more obstructive language from the current administrations in Israel and the U.S., remains to be seen. What the EU is banking on is that building up institutions of international legitimacy will work in the long run.