New US Strategy on Iran Poses Dilemma for Allies

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by Peter Jenkins

How do France, Germany, and the United Kingdom intend to react to the Iran policy that President Donald Trump announced on October 13? The leaders of these states put out a statement late on October 13 that is ambiguous. The relevant passage reads:

At the same time as we work to preserve the JCPoA, we share concerns about Iran’s ballistic missile programme and regional activities that also affect our European security interests. We stand ready to take further appropriate measures to address these issues in close cooperation with the US…. We look to Iran to engage in constructive dialogue to stop de-stabilising actions and work towards negotiated solutions.

The government of President Hassan Rouhani will be open to engaging in “constructive dialogue with the European Union and individual European states, while continuing to respect JCPOA commitments. However, European measures taken “in close cooperation with the United States” will, almost certainly, kill the JCPOA.

These are the measures that President Trump has in mind:

We will work with our allies to counter the regime’s destabilizing activity and support for terrorist proxies in the region…. I urge our allies to join us in taking strong actions to curb Iran’s continued dangerous and destabilizing behavior, including thorough sanctions outside the Iran Deal that target the regime’s ballistic missile program, its support for terrorism, and all of its destructive activities….I am directing my administration to work closely with Congress and our allies to address the deal’s many serious flaws.

The Iranian government will not renegotiate the JCPOA. It does not accept that its foreign policy is dangerous and destabilizing. It believes that it has a legitimate right to possess ballistic missiles for defense and deterrence and to support regional allies. It regards the claim that these allies are terrorists as fatuous, and foreign condemnation of its missile program as an instance of double standards. It will therefore consider any European “measures” that target its relations with regional allies or its missile program to be acts of aggression, and will look for ways of retaliating as a form of defense. Under those circumstances, the JCPOA’s chances of survival will be slim. Its opponents within Iran will have a political wind in their sails.

It is highly questionable, therefore, whether Europe can both preserve the JCPOA and address the issues that President Trump has in mind. That they should resolve such a dilemma by turning a deaf ear to President Trump’s plea for allied cooperation seems obvious. The nub of President Trump’s case is that the JCPOA has empowered, enriched and emboldened Iran to behave worse regionally, through support for “proxies and terrorists,” than before July 2015, and to accelerate its missile program. This is nonsense.

What the president set out on Friday was a litany of factual distortions, historic grievances, and humbug (“we stand in total solidarity with the Iranian regime’s longest-suffering victims: its own people” and “we hope that our actions today will help bring about a future of peace, stability, and prosperity in the Middle East—a future where sovereign nations respect each other and their own citizens”). This was far from being a balanced and scrupulous case for putting the JCPOA at risk so as to resolve imminent threats to Western security.

Of course it is never easy for European leaders to part from the government of the United States on matters portrayed as impinging on North Atlantic security. Prime Minister Tony Blair believed that on such issues Britain and the United States should stand “shoulder to shoulder” (difficult when one is so much larger than the other!). But instances of Europe and the United States begging to differ include the US intervention in Vietnam in the 1960s, US opposition to European construction of gas pipelines in the Soviet Union in the early 1980s and (for the most part) the US decision to impose regime change on Iraq in 2003. The North Atlantic alliance survived all these European assertions of a right to independence of judgement.

What, though, of President Trump’s threat to terminate the JCPOA if the US Congress and US allies fail to address the agreement’s purported “flaws”, including “near total silence on the missile program”? Should European leaders allow themselves to be intimidated by that? It is rarely wise to pander to those who threaten and menace. That aside, the JCPOA can survive US withdrawal. According to several Iranian statements, Iran will continue to implement the JCPOA as long as the other parties to the agreement, minus the United States, do the same.

Meanwhile, the potential for dialogue should not be underestimated. Through dialogue Europe can address and maybe even resolve some of President Trump’s concerns (and disconcert all those who see the New Strategy as a way of driving a wedge between Iran and the West).

Iran is open to being deprived of opportunities for “dangerous and destabilizing behavior“ in Syria and Yemen! According to an October 13 Iranian statement:

Iran firmly believes that its national security interests can only be secured through dialogue, confidence building and multilateral cooperation within the region….. [Iran] stands ready to contribute actively to joint efforts with the United Nations Secretary General and other responsible countries- including other permanent members of the Security Council and the European Union, to put an end to conflicts and violence.

Europe can also take soundings in relation to Iran’s missile program. As long as Europe demonstrates respect for the rights of a sovereign state (as it did when negotiating the JCPOA), it is likely to find Iran open to discussing whether there is a case for confidence-building measures in return for acknowledgement that Iran is as entitled to possess missiles for defense and deterrence purposes, and to a space-launch program, as any other state.

An attempt to agree on a distinction between missiles “designed to be capable of delivering nuclear missiles,” which the Security Council has called on Iran to refrain from developing, and those not so designed, would also be worth making. “Our missiles are strictly designed to carry conventional warheads and their range and precision are proportionate to our security environment and threat perception”, according to the Iranian statement quoted above.

Europe must beware, though, of those who claim that progress through dialogue alone is an impossibility, and that applying sanctions, to acquire “leverage,” is essential. The protracted and often frustrating diplomacy that led eventually to the JCPOA suggests the opposite to be true in Iran’s case.

Photo: Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, and Donald Trump

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Peter Jenkins

Peter Jenkins was a British career diplomat for 33 years, following studies at the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard. He served in Vienna (twice), Washington, Paris, Brasilia and Geneva. He specialized in global economic and security issues. His last assignment (2001-06) was that of UK Ambassador to the IAEA and UN (Vienna). Since 2006 he has represented the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership, advised the Director of IIASA and set up a partnership, The Ambassador Partnership llp, with former diplomatic colleagues, to offer the corporate sector dispute resolution and solutions to cross-border problems. He was an associate fellow of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy from 2010 to 2012. He writes and speaks on nuclear and trade policy issues.

4 Comments

  1. Amb. Jenkins again makes a cogent case. It is indeed encouraging to have today solid postings from France and the U.K. It would be even better to have also a German contribution. The best way forward could be an initiative by France, starting with a Macron visit to Tehran.

    Amb. Jenkins mentions “the US decision to impose regime change on Iraq in 2003” by large scale military action. I imagine he doesn’t want to openly write that a powerful group around Trump have the same idea for Iran in 2017 or 2018. In the US that is what this is all about, not about nuclear, not about missiles, and not about Yemen. The European officials should make very clear to their US counterparts that the US will be alone if Donald Trump starts his Middle East war.

  2. I have no idea where Mr. Jenkins gets this supposed quote from Europe, but Federica Mogherini, EU Foreign Minister is very clear and consistent in that this JCPOA is not between one country and another It is an agreement between 5 countries and the U.N. There is absolutely NO way this agreement will be changed or renegotiated. Iran is abiding by the terms of the agreement. Is not in violation and therefore the issue is moot.
    The EU has no interest in addressing an issue that does not exist.
    Curious that Mr. Jenkins neglects to say WHO said it.
    Iran’s missile program is not part of the deal, and can therefore not be connected.
    This writer speaks 3 European languages and reads EU news daily.
    EU MSM is under control of the CIA and therefore highly questionable.
    Neither France nor Germany have any intention of addressing the issue. As to what Boris Johnson might have said, I have no problem ignoring it.

  3. The USA is not any more truthful in fulfilling its treaties with Iran than it was throughout its history with the native Americans. Perhaps they too did not live up to the “spirit” of the agreement while legally abiding by the conditions?

  4. Russia, Turkey and Iran have accomplished outstanding results with their de-escalation zones in Syria. They have held six meetings in Astana, Kazakhstan since January which have greatly contributed to the lessening of conflict in Syria. Iran has been a key part of these meetings which it earned because Iran’s militias have been a key part of the defeat of US-sponsored radicals.
    So Trump’s claim that Iran has been engaged in destabilizing activities is poor poppycock. It’s quite the opposite.
    And Trump’s charge of “support for terrorist proxies in the region” of course applies to Hezbollah, which has handed US/Israel yet another defeat (after the big one in 2006).
    Actually it’s the US that has been engaged in destabilizing activities and support for terrorist proxies in the Middle East and Northern Africa for over a dozen years. But Russia, Iran and Syria are countering that. (Turkey, not so much.)
    Europe can go ahead and take soundings in relation to Iran’s missile program. Good luck on that. Iran has no real air force and so it depends upon missiles for its defense. Many of them are targeted upon US installations and ships in the Persian Gulf area, which is why the US has no chance of attacking Iran without suffering huge losses to its 40,000 troops and dependents in the area.

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