To the 28 member states of the European Union, President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement (formerly called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) was not just a diplomatic catastrophe of the highest order—it was a betrayal of everything America and Europe have worked towards for the past 15 years.
The Americans and Europeans may disagree on a lot of foreign policy issues, but preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapons capability wasn’t one of them. The JCPOA, while an imperfect mechanism that permitted a certain degree of uranium enrichment on Iranian soil, proved to be effective at capping Tehran’s nuclear activities and ensuring that the international community had access to the full scope of Iran’s nuclear work. If the Iranians attempted to cheat on some their commitments—perhaps by building a covert enrichment facility or importing dual-use nuclear technology through unofficial channels—there was a good chance that the world would know about it. For the Europeans, particularly Britain, France, and Germany, the JCPOA was a significant foreign policy accomplishment that resolved a pressing national security issue through reason and diplomacy, very likely averting an armed conflict in the process.
Trump not only walked away from that arrangement, but did so in the worst way possible. He appeared uninterested in what British, French, and German diplomats had to say. When British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson flew to Washington in a desperate attempt to keep Trump on board, he quickly realized that the trip was a waste of time because the White House had already made its decision. The president took months of negotiations between the Europeans and the State Department and flushed all that down the toilet.
Just as insulting to America’s European allies, however, was the Trump administration’s choice of a hard exit from the agreement. Washington would not only stop participating in a deal that its own diplomats helped write, it would reimpose all the secondary sanctions that were lifted. Companies doing business with Iran’s car industry would need to depart by August 6; multinational corporations and financial institutions doing business in Iran’s oil, energy, shipping, manufacturing, and insurance sectors would have to pull out of their contracts by November 4. If they refused to wind down their business, they would be sanctioned or fined by the the Treasury Department or frozen out of the U.S. financial system entirely. And in case Europeans governments thought the White House would provide them with special status via exemptions or waivers, National Security Advisor John Bolton quickly put that to rest.
The EU now finds itself in an unenviable position, caught between a nuclear non-proliferation agreement it desperately (and rightly) wants to maintain and an economic behemoth in the United States that could seize tens of billions of dollars in European assets with a stroke of the pen if it does not cater to Washington’s demands. European companies like France’s Total and Germany’s Siemens are so petrified of losing their market share in the U.S. that they are already preparing to pull out of Iran. This is exactly what the EU does not want to happen, and for good reason. Without money from the West, Iran has no incentive to continue restricting its nuclear program.
Is there anything the EU can do to keep the JCPOA on life support without America’s participation? European finance and foreign ministers have spent two days this week conferring with their Iranian colleagues to come up with an escape hatch. The EU released a statement after those meetings in which it committed itself to finding measures that would increase economic relations with Iran and keep Iranian oil sales moving. Some of those measures may include economic sanctions on U.S. assets in Europe if Washington enforces secondary sanctions on European companies. Others are suggesting the establishment of alternative financing structures, including using euros to conduct business with Iran instead of dollars. Still others hope that another round of diplomacy with the Trump administration will convince the White House to grandfather in certain contracts that are already in effect.
All the effort, however, may come to naught. Just as the Brits, Germans, and French saw Trump swat away their concerns in the weeks and months prior to his May 8 decision, they may find now that the current occupant in the Oval Office is uninterested in what they have to say. As one European diplomat confided, the atmosphere doesn’t look good on the other side of the Atlantic: “Let’s not fool ourselves that there are dozens of things we can do. We don’t have much to threaten the Americans. Optimism doesn’t abound.”
Europe has a choice: it can sustain an arms control accord and jeopardize a major breach in the transatlantic relationship, including a trade war. Or it can explain to the Iranians as best it can that, in order to protect its economies, the EU has no option but to comply with the Treasury Department’s guidance.
Whatever they do, relations with Washington have been dealt the worst blow since the U.S. overrode the UN Security Council and invaded Iraq. Now all we can hope for is that, unlike Iraq in 2003, the U.S. concludes that preventive military action in Iran is a non-starter.
Daniel R. DePetris is a foreign policy analyst, a columnist at Reuters, and a frequent contributor to The American Conservative.