US-EU Relations and the Iranian Question
Written by Sam Jacobsen
Background of US-EU Relations Regarding Iran
Relations between the European Union and the United States have historically been varied. The economic and defensive ties (including participation in organizations such as NATO) as well as the international prowess of the two entities have tied the nations together, but political differences and intra-EU division creates a more difficult landscape for the US to navigate. The current Trump administration in US politics has set a course of widening the rift between the US and the EU, specifically over questions of dealing with threats in the Middle East.
As the US and EU are two great world powers, issues such as the economic and security threats regarding Iran are paramount to international peace. The importance of pursuing bilateral peace agreements is paramount to maintaining security given Iran’s history of involvement in terrorism, economic subterfuge, and counter-productive foreign policy.
In May of 2018, Donald Trump removed the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that was formed in 2015 to alleviate economic sanctions against Iran provided that Iran, essentially, took decisive action to denuclearize. This secession from the JCPOA reapplied the sanctions originally places against Iranian economic sectors (specifically oil). Many EU leaders opposed this secession in public statements, including large numbers of EU, US, and Iranian diplomats. This divided the US and EU further than, as some argue, it has ever been since the inception of the EU.
Recently, Washington has sought to further divide EU member states on this issue. EU nations have reached economic accords in January of this year with Iran that allow the circumventing of US-imposed sanctions. The United States responded by leading a conference in Warsaw that many saw as an exercise in heaping pressure on Iran, with the hope of enticing other EU nations to acquiesce to the American stance.
Implications of US-EU Relations
Emmanuel Macron, French President, noted before the official withdrawal of the United States from the agreement that “There could be war, I don’t think that Donald Trump wants war.” President Trump withdrew from the deal on the grounds that it was weak and ineffectual and did not meet the aims of US foreign policy. The EU remains part of the deal as it seeks to normalize relations with Iran and provide for future breakthroughs in international peacekeeping.
Macron’s comments indicate possible implications of American action on the Iranian question. Although war is the last and least likely outcome, the United States cannot afford to lose international credibility by standing alone on this issue outside of regional partners such as Israel. The international community has slowly distanced itself from the United States on this issue. This delicate situation may affect other aspects of US involvement in world politics; as the United States’ position in the world weakens due to its stance on Iran, it will become more and more difficult to assert its position on other topics of importance. With the majority of the EU painting itself as the pragmatic leaders of the Western world, the international community will more consistently align itself with EU policy rather than follow the US. Therefore, as the United States continues to take a hardline stance on the Iranian question, it damages its international credibility and weakens its future ability to be a world leader on critical issues. Any future possibility of conflict over Iran will have to be avoided given the rift between the EU and US.
Possible Courses of Action
The common consensus in European dialogue (and from American political opposition to President Trump) is to wait out the Trump presidency. The Trump administration will undoubtedly be aware of this tactic. American democrats and “pro-Iran” EU members will surely be counting on a non-Trump victory in the 2020 election that will allow for swift action regarding Iran. Here are some possible courses of action by the American government in the near future, assuming that Iran does not pursue drastic action:
- Maintain the status quo. Although this is not sustainable in the long run, it may not be possible to convince European leaders of anything other than the position they have currently taken. The US position in world politics would weaken substantially, and US-EU relations would weaken, but the US would demonstrate resolve in its identification of Iran as a threat.
- Attrition. Early polls suggest that Donald Trump may not be successful in a reelection bid for the coming presidential elections. Most every opposition candidate has already professed solidarity with the EU in its stance on Iran. This would potentially repair US-EU relations after Trump’s term finishes. However, Iran has been known as openly hostile, participating in state-sponsored terrorism and other subversive actions on the international stage. Any degree of acceptance of Iranian action may prove costly, but speculation as to this possibility is highly inconsequential.
- Solidarity with the EU. The United States has too many economic and security ties with the EU to risk a deterioration of relations. This would require the Trump administration to renege on its promises of anti-Iran action. However, this would represent the ultimate reconciliation with EU member states and possibly preserve the US status as a top world power. Although unlikely given the current state of US domestic politics, this turn of events could encourage Iran to participate more fully in peace and non-proliferation agreements. Again, as the current administration asserts, it may be a dangerous course, but could prove fruitful.
US-EU relations have been a veritable staple of the 20th and 21st century. With growing political threats from Russia, economic threats from China, and other deteriorating situations across the globe, it is imperative that US-EU relations remain the strong point that they have been throughout recent history. Although it may take a political pride-swallowing on both sides, the benefits of bilateral security and agreeance, specifically on the Iranian question, will undoubtedly increase future global stability.
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Herszenhorn, David M. 2019. “Trump seeks to split EU as fight intensifies over Iran nuclear deal.” Politico, January 18th.
Irish, John and Riham Alkousaa. 2019. “Skirting U.S. sanctions, Europeans open new trade channel to Iran.” Reuters World News, January 30th.
Pillar, Paul R. 2019. “The US went to Warsaw to flex its muscles on Iran — instead it showed how the world is getting fed up.” Business Insider, Feb 20th.
Shengjun, Zhang. 2019. “US and Europe on chessboard over Iran.” Global Times (China), February 21st.