The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, better known as the Iran nuclear deal, increasingly appears to be in trouble. Despite the consensus opinion of U.S. and Israeli intelligence officials and international monitors that the agreement is working, President Donald Trump has made no secret of his hostility to the nuclear deal, repeatedly pledging to “rip up” what he has called “the worst deal ever.”
That the deal is holding and that the U.S, not Iran, is the one considering dropping out was demonstrated yet again this week. Despite dubious claims portraying Iran as out of compliance, the Islamic Republic continues to hold up its end of the bargain by keeping their nuclear program within the limits established by the deal, according to the latest review by the International Atomic Energy Agency reported on Monday by CBS News and Reuters. This official confirmation, though, seems unlikely to give any pause to those campaigning to undo the agreement — and potentially initiate a new round of major conflict in the Middle East.
Although Trump’s war against the deal is largely a product of domestic political rivalries — particularly Trump’s desire to undo the accomplishments of his predecessor, Barack Obama — a coterie of neoconservatives and hawks have also latched themselves to the effort. These operators are seeking to capsize a deal they’ve always loathed. But the growing effort to undo the nuclear agreement has potential implications well beyond the Middle East: It could undermine U.S. influence and credibility in international affairs.
While raising questions about American institutional capacity to abide by diplomatic agreements, destroying the Iran deal would also strike another hammer blow to the critical relationship between America and its European allies. The U.S.-Europe relationship is built on ties and alliances that are vital to American national security and political influence that have already been seriously shaken over the past two years. In recent months, the Trump administration has infuriated its European counterparts by pulling out of the Paris climate accord and calling into question U.S. security guarantees to Europe under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. But pulling out of the nuclear deal — an agreement laboriously negotiated with European support over two years, which international monitors say has succeeded in placing Iran’s nuclear program under strict control — might be a bridge too far for the European Union.
The core of the Trump administration’s efforts to kill the deal center on a purported push to make retroactive changes to the agreement. The administration has repeatedly vowed to terminate the nuclear deal unless such unilateral modifications are made, a demand that many experts say seems specifically calculated to cause the agreement to collapse. Faced with a U.S. administration recklessly undoing vital international agreements for reasons that make little sense outside of U.S. domestic politics, experts say that once-stalwart U.S. allies may soon begin seeking ways to maneuver around a government increasingly viewed as a destabilizing force.
“Any U.S. attempt to unilaterally extend or expand the scope of the deal would be extremely likely to violate the agreement and would also be seen as a slap in the face of Washington’s negotiating partners,” said Kelsey Davenport, director for Nonproliferation Policy at the D.C.-based Arms Control Association. “Trump is already damaging the deal by creating an environment of uncertainty around its future that increases the risk for businesses seeking to go back into Iran to invest.”
The looming possibility that sanctions could be re-imposed on Iran has helped deter many international businesses from returning to the country. Reintegration to the global economy was one of the key benefits that the Iranian government hoped to reap from the agreement. Even without the formal re-imposition of sanctions, continued public threats to do so could lead to the agreement’s incremental destruction by creating an environment of business uncertainty that makes doing business in Iran impossible.
If Iran perceives that companies are not returning due to U.S. threats, and it is thus not receiving its due benefits under the bargain, the deal could very well collapse. Such a collapse might isolate Iran, but the level of isolation for the U.S. — if the administration is believed by its partners to have acted in bad faith by destroying an agreement that was accomplishing its goals — could be even more damaging in the long-term.
“If the deal falls apart, Iran might resume troubling nuclear-related activities, but it would also result in a serious blow to the U.S.-EU relationship,” Davenport said. “It will absolutely isolate the United States and undermine its ability to negotiate other agreements internationally.”
For many hawkish opponents of the nuclear deal, its main shortcoming is that it does not address a broader scope of Iranian activities in the Middle East, beyond its nuclear program. Iran’s militant proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria continue to operate at cross-purposes with the interests of the U.S. and its allies, while the ideological hostility between the two countries still manifests in heated public threats and recriminations.
Ironically, however, keeping the nuclear deal itself offered the best path to start addressing these other points of conflict. As long as the critical issue of the nuclear file remained open between the U.S. and Iran, neither side was either able or willing to address other areas of tension or possible cooperation.
Iranian leaders have on numerous occasions indicated that they expected the nuclear deal to be the first step in a broader dialogue between the U.S. and Iran, something that the previous U.S. administration also suggested was a possibility, however remote. But by undoing the deal now, the Trump administration is slamming the door on any further dialogue, including on areas of shared interest like counterterrorism, migration, and even environmental issues.
The most likely consequence of hitting the brakes on the diplomatic process is that tensions between the U.S. and Iran will escalate. There is no guarantee that these tensions will not eventually lead to direct or indirect armed confrontation, a possibility that officials in European capitals are deeply concerned about. For EU countries that have directly suffered the blowback of past U.S. military adventures in the Middle East, the Trump administration’s attempts to upend the JCPOA have been a source of both frustration and dread.
Many in Europe are experiencing a newfound impetus to resist U.S. policy on this issue, even if going against the will of a longtime ally is unsettling to them.
“From the European perspective, the nuclear issue has been dealt with and there was an expectation that they would begin moving on to other issues,” said Dina Esfandiary, a fellow at the Centre for Science and Security Studies at King’s College London. “The fact that we are now suddenly re-litigating the same issues and same concerns from two years ago is, for the EU, frankly astonishing.”
The strength of the original sanctions regime imposed on Iran — the push that brought the Iranians to the table to negotiate in good faith — came in large part due to the support of the EU, as well as Russia and China. This financial pressure needed international buy-in in part because the U.S. itself does not trade with Iran. The “extraterritorial” sanctions and restrictions on global financial markets imposed by the U.S. compelled foreign business to comply, but the diplomacy around the sanctions ensured that the pressure campaign did not result in the U.S. becoming isolated.
Re-imposing international sanctions now could invite exactly that isolation. The likelihood that the same, broad coalition would come together again to reinstate sanctions, when Iran is by all accounts adhering to the deal, is very remote. However, companies facing potential penalties for doing business with Iran might decide that the business is more trouble than it’s worth, particularly if it means potentially suffering fines or losing access to the U.S.’s economy.
In response to this possibility, though, some EU countries began exploring the possibility of insulating their national businesses from extraterritorial U.S. sanctions, as a means of both protecting their economic interests and keeping the deal alive.
“European Union governments and officials have been scrambling to create a dialogue with their business sectors to find solutions that ensure that they can continue doing business, and Iran can continue reaping the benefits of the agreement,” said Esfandiary. “Larger European financial institutions with exposure to the U.S. may deem the risk too high, but given the renewed EU desire to stand up to Trump, greater steps have been taken to encourage medium and smaller institutions to take up these investment opportunities. Such companies have increasingly been encouraged by their governments to go into Iran.”
This September, the Austrian financial institution Oberbank signed a deal to finance investment projects in Iran, with executives stating at the time that German, Italian, and Danish companies were also engaged in similar talks. At a forum on Iran held in Zurich last month, EU business and financial officials said they planned to take further steps to strengthen the deal. Highlighting the 94 percent increase in year-over-year trade between Iran and EU member states, Helga Schmid, secretary general of the European External Action Service, said, “We have passed a very clear message: The nuclear deal is working and delivering, and the world would be less stable without it.” Senior European business executives at the event also raised the possibility of retaliatory and protective legislation to insulate EU businesses from U.S. financial measures.
This October, Federica Mogherini, high representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs, sent a blunt message to the Trump administration about the EU’s intention to uphold the deal in the face of U.S. efforts to undermine it. “The deal is not a bilateral agreement. It does not belong to any single country. And it is not up to any single country to terminate it,” Mogherini said. “We cannot afford as an international community, as Europe, for sure, to dismantle a nuclear agreement that is working and delivering, especially now.”
The inescapable backdrop to the American dispute with its allies is the legacy of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. The war helped precipitate an extended period of violence in the Middle East: regional stability collapsed; innumerable young people around the world were radicalized; and eventually waves of refugees, along with some terrorist operatives, arrived at Europe’s shores. The effects of the war on Europe continue to play out today, helping heighten social divisions and paving the way for the rise of far-right parties.
A crisis with Iran may, similarly, come home to Europe before it reaches across the ocean. While the United States may feel relatively secure triggering a conflagration, for Europeans, the Middle East is their “near abroad,” and what happens there directly impacts European security and stability. The Iranian nuclear deal was thought by many Europeans to be the first step in stabilizing the region and heading off further calamities; their defense of it is likely to be tenacious, especially in the face of a deeply unpopular administration in Washington.
“The JCPOA is a very rare case of a global security crisis being resolved through multilateral diplomatically, and for the EU, that is a very important precedent to preserve – their goal was actually build on that model as a blueprint to resolve other issues,” said Ellie Geranmayeh, a senior policy fellow for the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “For the Europeans, it has always been a priority to settle the nuclear issue with Iran through diplomatic means, particularly because of the devastating impact that the Iraq War had on European security interests.”
While EU nations are unlikely to burn bridges with the United States entirely — holding out hope that this administration will be an aberration — it is becoming more likely that European countries will begin making arrangements with countries, like Russia and China, to thwart destabilizing U.S. actions in the near future. While the United States appears committed to shredding the liberal international system that many Europeans rely on for stability, it looks increasingly like European allies will take steps to preserve that order — even it means leaving the U.S. behind.
“If the controversy over the nuclear deal reaches the level of the United Nations Security Council, you may well see the French and even the British taking the very anomalous position of siding with Russia and China on the issue, where they have historically sided with the United States,” said Geranmayeh. “For Europe, the nuclear deal is not just about what happens with Iran – it’s fundamentally about the nature of international norms, deal-making, and precedents.”