Iran Deal: Will Europe Rise to the Occasion?

Angela Merkel (Christliches Medienmagazin pro via Flickr)

by Eldar Mamedov 

This week will see a flurry of activity in the European Union designed to save the nuclear deal with Iran, otherwise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). After President Donald Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal from the agreement, all eyes are now on Europe: will it be able to deliver enough incentives to Iran to continue being part of the deal?

On Monday, the foreign ministers of the bloc´s 28 member states discussed the European response to Trump’s decision. On Tuesday, the foreign ministers of the EU3 (France, Germany, United Kingdom) plus Federica Mogherini, the Union´s High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, will meet with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in Brussels. And on Wednesday, the heads of the states and governments of the 28 will release their final conclusions at a summit in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Although it remains to be seen what will emerge from these discussions, there is a pervasive feeling that, by this point, the EU could have done more to preserve its singular diplomatic achievement. The EU3 gamble to appease Trump by offering to pile new sanctions on Iran on issues unrelated to the JCPOA (ballistic missiles, regional policies) failed miserably when Trump announced his “hard exit” from the JCPOA on May 8. His national security advisor, John Bolton, added insult to injury by broaching the possibility of sanctions against EU companies doing business in Iran. The US ambassador to Germany, in violation of all diplomatic protocol, demanded that German companies wind down their activities in Iran immediately.

The response of the EU to this unprecedented assault on its sovereignty from what is supposedly its closest ally was somewhat underwhelming. True, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, reacting to Trump´s decision, said that the EU cannot rely in defense matters on the US like it used to, which is as brave a statement from a German Christian-Democrat leader as it could be. Yet, at the same time, her foreign minister seemed to be giving in to the American pressure by saying that the government can’t protect businesses from US sanctions.

Similar disarray is seen on the French side. Although the government’s spokesperson threatened to take the US to the World Trade Organization (WTO) over the secondary sanctions, President Emmanuel Macron, apparently unfazed by the cold shower he received in Washington, contributed more confusion by repeating his half-baked ideas about a “new, more extended deal” with Iran, covering missiles and Iran’s “problematic role in the region.” At no point, however, did Macron care to explain why Iran would be interested in discussing any new deal when one of the parties is blatantly violating the existing one. Far from being an orchestrated campaign of messaging designed to keep different audiences on board, this cacophony creates an impression of a lack of direction. It also reflects Macron´s insistence on being treated as America´s chief partner in Europe even at the expense of Europe’s broader interests.

Only Mogherini seems to have grasped the gravity of the situation adequately by issuing an uncharacteristically harsh statement, in which she assailed Trump´s policies without naming him:

It seems that screaming, shouting, insulting and bullying, systematically destroying and dismantling everything that is already in place is the mood of our times. While the secret of change—and we need change—is to put all energies not in destroying the old, but rather in building the new.

Most upsetting was the lack of any serious European diplomacy with Iran between Trump’s January 12 ultimatum and the May 8 decision. Macron’s announced visit to Tehran never happened. Nor did senior German and British statespersons visit Iran. And Europe didn’t extend an invitation to President Hassan Rouhani to visit. This created an impression that the EU, certainly the EU3, was much more interested in appeasing Trump—the side that violated the deal—rather than providing some measure of diplomatic comfort to the party that actually lived up to its commitments.

If the EU cannot, in the face of American obstructionism, provide all the economic benefits that Iran secured as part of the JCPOA, it should have been much more vocal in stressing that Iran is fulfilling the agreement, while the US is not. After all, with or without the JCPOA, Iran will still be part of the EU’s extended neighborhood. Given the turmoil in the Middle East, the EU simply cannot afford to lose channels of communication with one of the key countries in the region. Giving diplomatic credit to Iran when economic benefits are lagging behind could at least mitigate the fallout from an inevitable estrangement when and if the EU proves unable to compensate for American obduracy.

Taken together, all these factors create doubts as to whether the EU decisions on Iran policy post-US withdrawal from the JCPOA will match Iranian expectations. Yet something new is afoot in Europe. For the first time, perhaps, the sharp realization of fundamental divergences with the transatlantic ally on how the world should be organized is going mainstream.

In the wake of Trump´s decision on the JCPOA, there was a flurry of articles in key media outlets such as Financial Times, Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and others calling for a thorough re-evaluation of Europe´s relations with the US. Europeans chafe at what Adnan Tabatabai, the CEO of the German-based think-tank CARPO, calls the transition from Obama’s “yes, we can” to Trump’s “because we can” way of conducting foreign policy. Coming to terms with the new situation will undoubtedly take time, but perhaps Trump was a rude shock that Europe needed to shed its cozy reliance on US in security matters. If the principle of “strategic autonomy,” enshrined in the EU Global Strategy of 2016, is to transition from aspiration to reality, Trump’s decision on JCPOA will have certainly contributed greatly.

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament.

Eldar Mamedov

Eldar Mamedov has degrees from the University of Latvia and the Diplomatic School in Madrid, Spain. He has worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia and as a diplomat in Latvian embassies in Washington D.C. and Madrid. Since 2007, Mamedov has served as a political adviser for the social-democrats in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament (EP) and is in charge of the EP delegations for inter-parliamentary relations with Iran, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, and Mashreq.



  1. Thinking Europe will take Iran’s side is naive. It will not happen and Europe will not upset the US by continuing business relation with Iran.

  2. What I find very strange is how all the analyses about Iran completely ignore the events in Gaza as if they’re totally unrelated. Walter Russell Mead has an article on how a hoped-for Arab-Israeli alliance will arise against Iran; no mention of how that will happen while Israel is shooting Arabs on live tv. Our media masters don’t want us to draw any links between the two.

  3. The best course of Action for Iran is to give EU a clear deadline to fulfill ALL economics benefits promised to Iran and after the deadline dismantle the agreement on few steps and eventually exit from NPT. Iran renegotiate joining NPT then in exchange of sanctions and also nuclear free Israel

  4. It horrible to see how Europeans are supporting what is a criminal regime in Iran. They are totally blinded by business deals.

  5. While the traditional Europe may be inclined to follow US at any cost but the young Europe will not. Let’s hope that the wisdom becomes the winner this time.

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