US President Donald Trump’s refusal to certify to Congress that Iran is complying with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JPCOA), the deal devised by the world community to rein in its nuclear program, has upset Washington’s allies in Europe. The European Union and its major member states are now trying to forge a common front with China and Russia to defend the agreement and remove a further source of turmoil in West Asia.
The pact was signed in 2015 by Tehran and six world powers (the United States, China, Russia, France, Britain and Germany). It is designed to limit some dimensions of Iranian nuclear activities in return for a relaxation of economic and financial sanctions.
On Monday, the European Council reiterated that the JPCOA was a “key pillar of the international non-proliferation architecture” and that the EU was committed to ensuring its full and effective implementation. To try to strike a balance with Washington’s position, EU leaders also voiced concerns about ballistic-missile activities and growing tensions in the Middle East. They refrained from mentioning Iran, but the reference to its missile program and meddling into many disputes in the region is evident.
In a joint declaration released on Friday, Berlin, Paris and London had said it was in their “shared national security interest” to preserve the deal. On the same day, EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini had stressed that the EU “cannot afford to dismantle it”, pointing out that Tehran was sticking to its obligations, as has been confirmed by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Mogherini, who chairs the international commission monitoring the JPCOA implementation, added that the successful enforcement of the agreement was preventing Iran from developing nuclear arms. She will visit Washington next month to try to save this complex diplomatic framework.
The European grouping and its single members have started to restore economic ties with Tehran after the easing of sanctions and do not want a new crisis that could imperil the current interaction with the Iranian regime. This is a concern that Brussels has in common with Beijing, yet another big investor in and trading partner of Iran.
What’s more, the Greater Middle East is already ravaged by many other conflicts that the US has in many cases triggered or contributed to. And Trump’s possible sinking of the JPCOA has the potential to worsen the geopolitical scenario from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Hindu Kush, where Iran is a relevant stakeholder, be it the Afghan, Syrian, Iraqi or Yemeni chessboard.
The EU is spending billions of euros to aid populations at risk in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, where European troops are also helping the US armed forces combat radical groups such as the self-styled Islamic State (Daesh) and al-Qaeda. Down the road, it will become intolerable for European governments – and their taxpayers – to commit to humanitarian, development and military assistance in these countries if Washington continues to create new areas of conflict.
By moving forward with his electoral promise to kill the JPCOA, Trump will give impetus to the creation of a diplomatic bloc formed by the EU, China and Russia, which all back the pact. This would be a tactical choice by the EU, dictated by its need to avoid a new conflict in the Middle East. But Brussels could go beyond and expand its cooperation with Beijing and Moscow to manage existing conflicts on its southeastern flank.
As well, Trump’s destabilizing foreign policy could push Europeans to withdraw their support – so far rather timid, to say the least – for the US in regions that do not fall within the EU’s sphere of geopolitical interest – the China Seas, Taiwan and, with some distinctions, North Korea.
So the US president’s battle against the Iran nuclear deal has opened a new rift between his administration and Washington’s allies in the Old Continent. The long-standing trans-Atlantic alliance has already been undermined by Trump’s decision to pull back his country from the 2015 Paris accord on climate change, which is a cornerstone of the EU’s environmental policy.
“The Donald” has also irked European countries by accusing them of contributing insufficiently to the Northern Atlantic Treaty Organization. Further, Europeans have been alienated by his accusations that some EU countries – especially Germany – are damaging the US economy with their trade surpluses.
At the moment, Washington and Brussels share a common stance only on China’s unfair trade and investment practices. This is not enough to cement a credible and functional working relationship in world affairs.
*Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He is a contributing writer to the South China Morning Post and the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor.