President Donald Trump’s recent decision not to re-certify Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA has stimulated much debate on both sides of the Atlantic. But whilst in the U.S., both sides of the argument are being put, in Europe almost no one supports Trump’s policy – not governments, and certainly not electors. The unprecedented joint UK/France/Germany ‘statement of concern’ underlines this.
So why doesn’t Europe agree with President Trump?
Europe sees the threat from Iran differently from the U.S. Of course Europe appreciates that Iran’s behaviour is destabilizing, but the same could be said of several other countries in the region. Iran does not support terrorist groups that are attacking Europe, but on the contrary is prominent in the struggle against ISIS. Ballistic Missile (BM) proliferation is a bad thing but of a completely different order of magnitude to nuclear weapons: BMs without nuclear (or BCW) warheads are not strategic weapons. But the key difference is over Israel: the Europeans do not share the U.S.’s total commitment to support Israel come what may. Indeed, a majority of Europeans probably believe that this unquestioning commitment is what is preventing an Israel-Palestine peace agreement: only the U.S. can put sufficient pressure on Israel to negotiate seriously, and the U.S. is not ready to do this.
The Europeans are fully committed to preventing Iran developing nuclear weapons. There was – and is – international near unanimity that nuclear weapons proliferation, by any country, is potentially an existential threat to the world order. The P5+1 process harnessed this and brought Iran to the table to sign the JCPOA through a series of increasingly severe UN Security Council Resolutions, supported by Russia and China, which delivered mandatory international sanctions, reinforced by EU sanctions that went even further.
Another factor bringing Iran to the table was relentless intelligence pressure, a result of focus and cooperation between many Western intelligence agencies. And the intelligence was accepted and used by other intelligence allies, which after the Iraq WMD debacle was an achievement. This meant that Iran just wasn’t able to run a covert nuclear programme. The public exposure of the Fordow underground enrichment site during the UN General Assembly in 2009 is the most obvious example of this. A post-JCPOA Iran would be subject to the same pressure.
It is hard for Europeans to see how the U.S. could force Iran to renegotiate the nuclear deal. The U.S. had sanctions on Iran for decades, without noticeably changing Iranian policy; it was U.S. plus UN plus EU sanctions that made the difference. The U.S. on its own cannot impose enough economic pressure on Iran to force it to change its policies on anything much.
Meanwhile, it is as clear now as it was when the JCPOA was agreed in 2015 that there is no military solution that would achieve President Trump’s declared aim of preventing Iran from ever having a nuclear weapon. However severe a military strike, some Iranian nuclear know-how would survive, and Iran would have every reason to abandon all nuclear agreements and pursue a weapons programme. After the experience of Afghanistan and Iraq, invasion and/or regime change are not options.
And finally, a point that has been widely made elsewhere: if the U.S. abandons a deal it signed only two years ago, this calls into question not only U.S. reliability in other international and bilateral agreements, but also the utility for European diplomats of working with the U.S. on any other complex multilateral deal.
The real danger here is of a more general divergence between the U.S. and Europe, which would weaken the West and make it even harder for Trump to achieve any of his foreign policy goals – constraining North Korea in particular.