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The United States and Europe find themselves in a growing crisis with Iran. The US is funnelling military assets to the region following a series of incidents that have caused damage to petroleum tankers in the Persian Gulf. Although Iran has denied involvement, many suspect that Tehran has been the instigator of these attacks. Adding fuel to this combustible picture is Iran’s signal that it will breach the threshold on nuclear enrichment that was imposed by the 2015 nuclear agreement. President Trump has indicated that he does not want war but others in his administration see things differently and crises have the potential to escalate beyond the designs of rational policymaking.
As well as presenting a dangerous geopolitical moment, this issue throws light on the growing divergences in transatlantic relations. Ever since President Trump’s announcement in May 2018 of his intention to withdraw America from the Iran nuclear deal, the two sides of the Atlantic have been at loggerheads. At the time of the US withdrawal, the European Union High Representative Federica Mogherini expressed her ‘regret’ and maintained that the deal was ‘crucial for the security of the region, of Europe and of the entire world.’ The Europeans saw no justification for withdrawing from the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). They had regarded its signature in 2015 as a major success as it constrained Iranian nuclear behaviour and modelled a multilateral agreement, led by the EU and America, that included powers such as Russia and China. Europe’s collision with the United States over the Iran nuclear deal reflects its need to defend a signal foreign policy achievement which plays up EU strengths: negotiations, diplomacy and soft power.
But President Trump made no secret of his hostility to a deal that was considered a success of the Obama administration. Trump argued that the JCPOA only delayed Iran’s path to a nuclear bomb, whilst releasing assets and trade opportunities that would invigorate the regime. Meanwhile he pointed to Iran’s intervention in Syria and Yemen, its continuing ballistic missile programme and its targeting of dissidents abroad. Europe countered that the JCPOA provided an agreed mechanism for curbing nuclear proliferation and pointed to the fact that the International Atomic Energy Agency had confirmed Iran’s adherence to the deal. The Europeans agree on the need for a change in Iranian behaviour in the region, but not at the expense of losing the JCPOA. Europe clashed with the United States over the reimposition of sanctions against Tehran, and continues to try to circumvent these measures.
Transatlantic tensions focused upon Iran are not new; they have been a thorn in the side of the allies going back to the earliest days of the Islamic revolution. European countries hoped to normalize relations with Iran during the 1980s but the Reagan administration resisted such attempts. Even the Clinton era was characterised by deeply held differences. In 1996, the Republican-controlled US Congress mandated the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act that threatened extra-territorial penalties against European firms that traded with Iran. Yet European governments considered it unwise to isolate the regime and believed that by engaging with Iran they could modify its behaviour. The Europeans collectively resisted US pressure and threatened to take the dispute to the World Trade Organisation. Under George W Bush, there were strains over categorising Iran as part of the ‘Axis of Evil’ and rumours circulating in Washington that if the invasion of Iraq worked out well, Iran was next in line.
The current tensions over Iran are stoked by European fears that America cares little about the transatlantic alliance and is willing to act unilaterally through the exercise of its military power. The Trump administration withdrew unilaterally from the JCPOA despite the efforts of the UK, Germany and France to preserve its involvement. US action has depleted the reservoir of trust on which the Atlantic relationship was built. America has been scornful of European efforts to keep the Iranian deal alive and dismissive of diplomacy. Whilst the EU regarded the JCPOA as a contribution to international order, the US appears to be contemptous of multilateralism and wedded to acting unilaterally.
For its part, the United States is frustrated by attempts to act in concert with its allies and fearful that its power will be constrained. The Trump administration feels that multilateralism should only be pursued if it yields greater rewards than are obtainable by acting alone. It suspects that European countries want to free-ride on US strength and it has accused them of being more concerned about their commercial interests than western security.
The differences between the United States and Europe over the JCPOA can be traced to conflicting threat perceptions over Iran. The Europeans, unlike the Americans, cannot imagine themselves at war with Iran. The US are mindful of the views of countries in the region, like Israel and Saudi Arabia, that encourage a firmer stance and sanctions against Iran. Unfortunately, amidst a growing risk of conflict in the region, the United States and European governments show a growing tendency to compete rather than cooperate. President Trump is certainly exacerbating tensions in the transatlantic relationship, but these difficulties predated him and will remain in some form well after he leaves office.
Wyn Rees is a professor of International Security in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham.
Azriel Bermant is a lecturer in International Security at Tel Aviv University