by Ellie Geranmayeh
Members of Congress opposing the Iranian nuclear deal don’t seem to care that it’s a multilateral agreement their longest-serving European allies support. Europeans are far from impressed that the US legislature has taken hostage the diplomatic roadmap on the nuclear file that they played a critical role in negotiating. GOP Republicans have clearly attempted to shift the debate from a vote on the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) announced last week to one on the US presidential legacy and US-Iran relations. If Congress derails the JCPOA before it’s even had a chance to be implemented, it will likely have troubling ramifications for US relations with a long-term ally, Europe, particularly on future sanctions.
Although the JCPOA has received a mixed reception in Washington, European capitals have been quick to offer full backing. This is expected given the animosity, distrust, and political baggage between the US and Iran. Less anticipated however, were assertions from Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), an avid opponent of the nuclear negotiations with Iran, who stated this week that he would “like to be able to trust Europe, but when they are frothing at the mouth about business interests. . . will it be so easy to call a violation a violation?” Such statements are both inaccurate and rather insulting to European policy-makers, especially the French, who have traditionally had strong positions against proliferation in the Middle East.
It was the Europeans, and not the US, Russia, or China, who knowingly paid the highest price for imposing oil and banking sanctions that crippled the Iranian economy. It was European politicians who resisted the largest backlash from the business sector opposed to the EU oil embargo against Iran – which was coordinated with the US. These costs were worth paying at a time when Europe was Iran’s biggest trading partner. But it has now fallen to sixth place. And if similar worries return, Europeans have made clear they are willing to use the snap-back mechanisms under the JCPOA to re-impose sanctions.
Given Europe’s history of trade and diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran, it inevitably has a higher commercial stake in Iran going forward as compared to the US. But Europeans have never, nor will they, go soft on the Iranian nuclear file. Although many European trade delegations have visited Iran since the interim nuclear deal was signed in November 2013, these have purely been exploratory in nature, with sanctions remaining absolute and firm.
In the aftermath of the JCPOA, Europeans have outlined their openness for expanded engagement with Iran beyond the nuclear issue. This week, German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel was the first high-ranking Western politician to visit Iran after the nuclear deal. During a telephone call, the UK Prime Minister David Cameron congratulated Hassan Rouhani on the conclusion of the nuclear negotiations and indicated that their respective embassies would be reopened soon. Next week, the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who has publically taken a tough position on Iran, will visit Tehran. A visit by Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni is scheduled by August. The EU’s High Representative Federica Mogherini will also make her first trip to Tehran next week to discuss the JCPOA as well as regional and bilateral issues.
These steps have been appropriately timed and should not come as a surprise to Congress. Unlike the US, Europe has never frozen diplomatic relations with Iran despite extensive tensions (the UK is the only exception). It is therefore easier for Europeans to re-engage based on a blueprint. On these visits, Europeans will also underscore to Tehran that, although the West is serious about delivering on the JCPOA, Iran is expected to carry out its full commitments before commercial ties deepen. Such interactions can help with the implementation and durability of the nuclear deal.
Importantly, and as stated by officials from both sides, Europe and Iran have the political space and urgency to engage on regional security in the Middle East. In contrast to the US, Europeans have suffered direct blowback to homeland security, by way of terrorism, citizens joining the Islamic State, and refugee influx. A recent report by the European Council on Foreign Relations argues that, given Iran’s contentious but important role in the Middle East and Europe’s proximity to the region, Europeans should kick-start a high-level and high-intensity engagement on regional security that includes Iran.
EU and UN Support
As a result of two important decisions made on Monday, members of Congress should think twice about passing a bill of disapproval on this nuclear deal. First, the European Council unanimously endorsed the JCPOA and agreed to lift EU unilateral sanctions in accordance with its scheduled timeline. This endorsement clearly signals that European capitals have reached a common position that the JCPOA is the best means for ensuring that Iran’s nuclear program remains peaceful. A bill of disapproval goes against not just the three European countries involved in negotiating the JCPOA but the 28 EU countries that have overlapping interests and values with the US.
Additionally the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) passed Resolution 2231 that unanimously endorses the JCPOA. Members of Congress complain that by agreeing to this resolution, the US administration has presented them with a fait accompli. As the US Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman noted, it would have been difficult for the US to tell the world that it “should wait for the United States Congress.” The resolution actually provides a 90-day window for its adoption, which provides enough time for the congressional review period and potential veto override procedures. In any case, President Barack Obama used the same procedure as his predecessors, including George W. Bush who used a UN resolution to argue for international legitimacy when seeking congressional support to invade Iraq in 2003. This time, Obama is using the UN vote to gain support for a peace initiative that avoids another costly war and increases respect for US leadership in global diplomacy. If Congress overrides the JCPOA, this will undermine international confidence in the ability of the US to deliver on its future commitments to diplomacy.
Some members of Congress have complained that the JCPOA is a historic mistake. Secretary of State John Kerry has noted that U.S. repudiation of this nuclear deal would be the actual historic mistake. This is also the European position. As members of Congress deliberate on whether to turn down the JCPOA they ought to bear in mind four fundamental repercussions of blocking the deal.
Four Considerations for Congress
The most immediate impact of congressional rejection of the JCPOA will be that Tehran squarely wins the blame game, which will boost support for Iran’s Supreme Leader at home. The Chinese and Russians will certainly label the US a spoiler of a multilateral agreement that has taken years of political commitment to conclude. Many in Europe are likely to sympathize with this position. Second, because the US will be perceived as the unreasonable party, it will be extremely difficult to retain existing international consensus on sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program.
Third, without the JCPOA and sanctions relief, Iran is likely to step up its nuclear program and reject continued supervision of its facilities by international inspectors. The West will then face two unpalatable alternatives: more sanctions and coercion to force the Iranian leadership back to the negotiating table, which is highly unlikely, or a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities that only delays the nuclear program and puts the West on an unpredictable trajectory in a war-torn and fragile region.
Fourth, by torpedoing an agreement that Europe has supported, the US Congress risks losing standing with its transatlantic allies. Congressional obstruction of what Europeans believe to be a legitimate foreign policy measure would set a dangerous precedent and create problems for cooperation between the EU and the US on sanctions. This would weaken the effectiveness of US sanctions and therefore limit options available when devising future policy on other shared security threats.
Over the next two months, the debate in the US over the JCPOA will turn ugly. The Israeli administration and lobby groups opposed to the deal have a clear goal and ample funds to attempt to swing votes in Congress and block Obama’s veto power over a bill of disapproval. Congress should closely consider the impact of such choice on existing and future US-European relations. They also should consider that the JCPOA was the result of a diplomatic initiative on the nuclear issue led by Europe over a decade ago. If Congress blocks the deal at this stage, the chance for a peaceful resolution of this nuclear file could be lost for another decade or, worse, forever. In the meantime the Iranian nuclear program is likely to expand and the door will be shut on urgently necessary regional diplomacy, which would only further undermine US, European, and global security.