To many observers, Europe’s performance in defusing the crisis between Iran and the United States has been an embarrassing display of inept diplomacy and further evidence of European weakness. But the longer the US-Iran stalemate drags on, the more Europe’s involvement looks like something else entirely: the world’s best chance to avoid more bloodshed in the Middle East.
In the 15 months since President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the Iran nuclear deal (officially, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) and put Washington on a collision course with Tehran, Europe has played the part of peacemaker, not always with obvious willingness. But by keeping the nuclear deal alive, Europe believed it could forge a less antagonistic path by offering Iran an alternative to US economic pressure.
That was the idea, anyway. In May, Iran said that unless sanctions were eased it would have no choice but to go back on its promises regarding nuclear production. Then, on July 7, Tehran announced it was increasing uranium enrichment to beyond the threshold allowed by the deal. This, along with a series of tit-for-tat skirmishes with the US, has resulted in a slow-motion confrontation that even Iran’s biggest regional rivals concede was inevitable.
At the heart of the failure so far has been an inability to offer Iran an alternative to crippling US sanctions. For instance, the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges, or Instex, established by France, Germany and the United Kingdom, was meant to foster trade with Iran by facilitating payments in currencies other than the US dollar. But that mechanism has gone largely unused by those fearful of being cut out of US markets. Just last week, US Treasury officials confirmed this fear by warning European allies to abandon Instex completely – or pay the price.
Still, despite the many reasons for pessimism, European engagement should not be dismissed. As the Iranian regime lashes out with its own acts of aggression – from attacks on oil tankers to new ballistic missile tests – the clouds of conflict are growing more ominous. Who else but Europe can steer all parties toward calm?
For Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, the answer is clear: no one can. In June, after Iran allegedly shot down an American surveillance drone – and as Trump was reportedly planning to retaliate with airstrikes – Mogherini said it was up to Europe to “make sure that an escalation is avoided.” The EU has not always spoken with one voice on foreign policy and has much work to do before its economic heft is matched by political power. But on Iran there is little appetite for following Trump’s dangerous lead.
Consider, for example, Britain’s response to a series of tanker seizures. In June, British Royal Marines detained a Panamanian-flagged tanker off the coast of Gibraltar, claiming that the cargo – Iranian oil bound for the Syrian oil refinery of Banias – was in violation of EU sanctions. The UK, for now still an EU member, was allegedly acting at the behest of the United States. But two weeks later, when Iran took a British-flagged ship in the Strait of Hormuz, the UK turned its back on Washington. Rather than join a US-led maritime security force in the Arabian Gulf, Britain said it would only work with Europe to secure shipping lanes. The subtext was clear: Britain will not be goaded into a US-led war with Iran.
Whether Britain’s stand will deepen European resolve remains to be seen. Although the Europeans are right to try and keep the JCPOA alive – talks on Sunday in Vienna were called “constructive” by Iranian negotiators – they have little to show for their efforts. To complicate matters further, Britain under a new prime minister is careening toward a “no deal” Brexit, while the EU is about to get a new foreign policy chief (although the nominee, Josep Borrell, formerly Spain’s foreign minister, shares Mogherini’s commitment to the deal).
Amid so much uncertainty, what can Europe do to ease tensions between America and Iran? One option is to lean more heavily on the JCPOA’s non-European signatories, Russia and China. If, for instance, Moscow and Beijing supported trade through Instex and other means, the remaining supporters of the nuclear deal could provide Iran with enough economic relief to weather American pressure.
Iran’s neighbors could also do more. While Iraq has sought to mediate between Iran and the US, the Gulf states have been less public with their diplomacy. That must change. Although states like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia supported the US in torpedoing the nuclear deal in the first place, neither country would benefit from a conflict on their doorstep. To avoid one, the UAE and Saudi Arabia should push the Trump administration to abandon its war-mongering rhetoric and pursue a political resolution.
But for any of this to work, Europe must continue to lead from the front. By offering Iran viable sanctions relief and keeping the nuclear deal alive until after the US presidential elections, Europe can present a viable alternative to American saber-rattling. While there is much at stake in failure, there is far more to gain by beating Trump at his own game.
Greg C. Bruno is the author of “Blessings from Beijing: Inside China’s Soft-Power War on Tibet.” As a journalist his work has appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, The Guardian and other international outlets. He was a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and is a former opinion editor at The National in Abu Dhabi and Project Syndicate in Prague.