Robert Jackson Korcuska is a Freshman at Tufts University.
On July 14, 2015 the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, often referred to as “The Iran Deal,” an agreement between the U.S., France, the U.K., Russia, China, and Germany (collectively referred to as the “P5+1” countries as they are all permanent members of the UN Security Council except for Germany) and Iran, was put in place in the hopes of limiting Iran’s nuclear program.
Since President Trump pulled the US out of the JCPOA in May of last year, the path forward for the European signatories of the deal has been unclear. One way to address the events would be to preserve the 2015 agreement or a similar accord, ensuring that Iran’s nuclear program remains in check, but in doing so they would go against the agenda of the U.S., a close ally of all three European signatories. Nobody wants Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, or even to develop its nuclear program, and given that the European signatories do not share the President Trump’s desire for a new deal with Iran, such a strategy seems sound, at least when it comes to the goal of containing Iran’s nuclear program.
Until about a week ago, it wasn’t clear what exactly Europe would do, and for those concerned with the U.S.’s position as a world power, the above scenario was a real worry. It almost played out. A few months after President Trump announced the US’s withdrawal from the JCPOA, the EU issued a “blocking statute” to attempt to allow European businesses to retain their relationships with Iran despite U.S. sanctions. The statute was difficult to enforce and had a minimal economic effect, but still countered the U.S.’s agenda, however minor a symbol it may have been. Much more significant is that Tehran has sought support from Europe in asking for sanctions relief. For France, Germany, and the U.K., this would seem appealing as Iran builds its uranium supply while they desperately try to hold on to the 2015 deal. European leaders considered this, offering to help compensate for Iran’s lost revenue in exchange for preserving the JCPOA.
Had such a deal come to fruition, it would have been a significant symbol of eroding US influence in Europe. In Europe the U.S. has long found some of its closest and most reliable allies, and a European deal with Iran would show that the U.S. and its European allies no longer operate in unison. The thought of this is frightening for the U.S.’s role in world politics; for any country to maintain its status as a superpower, the countries allied or aligned with it mustn’t disregard the supposed superpower’s agenda, and this “bailout” would look like just that.
It doesn’t help that the U.S. seems to be the reason we are in this situation to begin with. It was the U.S. after all, who pulled out of the deal first, prompting Iran to begin lashing out, seizing oil tankers and downing U.S. drones. It’s only natural that European countries would doubt the rationality of American leadership and attempt to secure their interests with Iran on their own terms.
Ultimately though, it was Iran’s lashing out that eliminated the prospects for such a deal, eliminating the immediate need to to worry about Europe’s newfound distance. The attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil fields looks like it was a step too far for European leaders. In September, at the beginning of the UN General Assembly, France, Germany, and the U.K. issued a statement blaming Iran for the attacks in Saudi Arabia and calling for negotiations on issues broader than Iran’s nuclear program.[i] Such a statement aligns with Washington’s position when the US pulled out of the deal. It doesn’t seem though, that they took this position because of the US; the French foreign minister said that that Macron was meditating on Iran’s requests for aid, but that the attacks on the oil field had been a “game changer.”[ii] That seems to indicate that the French president was considering a bailout, but Iran’s actions ultimately stopped him. Said otherwise, it was not France’s connection with the U.S. but rather Iran’s lashing out that made the difference.
For now, it seems that a symbolic European breaking with the United States will be avoided, but it may very well have gone the other way. Though we have long had European support, and European nations have always been among our closest allies, they, like anyone, have reasons for supporting the U.S., and such an unmeasured approach to foreign policy does not maintain their trust. Just because the U.S. has long had friendly relations with European countries does not mean that will remain the case forever, and as we move forward we must remember that, if the U.S. is to remain a world leader, we cannot take Europe for granted.
[i] New York Times, “A Year Later, Iran Finds Evaporating Sympathy and the U.N.” https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/23/world/middleeast/iran-un-rouhani.html
[ii] New York Times, “A Year Later, Iran Finds Evaporating Sympathy and the U.N.” https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/23/world/middleeast/iran-un-rouhani.html