Bobby Gosh – Bloomberg
Iran announced Monday it is 10 days away from breaching the nuclear-stockpile cap imposed by the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. For good measure, Tehran is threatening to enrich uranium beyond a 3.67% limit, meant to prevent it from making weapons-grade material, if the European signatories don’t move quickly to save the deal.
For those Europeans – Germany, France, the UK and the European Union – it’s a moment of truth. They remain vocally supportive of the nuclear pact, and continue to criticize the US for abrogating it last year. But just last month, they rejected an Iranian ultimatum, saying they would not keep the deal alive under Tehran’s threats.
The Europeans will have to act, and the only realistic course left is to put aside their legitimate distaste for the Trump administration and join US efforts to deny the Iranian regime access to nuclear weapons.
For the White House, the announcement from Tehran is a gift. For weeks, the US has faced a wall of skepticism as it tried to persuade the world, and specifically European allies, that Iran is behind a series of attacks on tankers in the Gulf of Oman. Despite growing circumstantial evidence that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps is culpable, the Europeans have for the most part been reluctant to criticize Iran.
Their skepticism is warranted: Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton have a record of playing fast and loose with facts, especially on Iran. In a recent example, Pompeo blamed Tehran for an attack in Kabul, even though the Taliban — no friend of Iran — had already claimed responsibility.
When Pompeo fingered Iran for the tanker attacks, he came across like the mendacious shepherd who cried wolf: the global village shrugged it off. With the latest Iranian announcement, the wolf is baying its own intentions, and the villagers must act.
A good start would be to drop the charade that had characterized the European-Iranian discussion since the US pulled out of the nuclear deal. Both sides have known all along that the Europeans could not “save” it. There was never any realistic possibility that European companies and investors would defy US sanctions and pour money and technology into Iran. Nor could anybody reasonably believe that European leaders could get Trump to change his mind.
And yet, the Iranians kept up the pretense that Europe could deliver on the promise of the 2015 pact. Why? Because it allowed Tehran to keep playing the victim while continuing apace with its plan to expand its influence in the Middle East, through its support of murderous regimes and terrorist groups, from Syria and Lebanon to Gaza and Yemen. It also gave President Hassan Rouhani a way to deflect domestic criticism for his failure to deliver on the much-touted economic dividend of the nuclear deal.
For proof that the Iranians never really expected the deal to be saved, note that they did not make the same appeals and threats to China and Russia, also signatories to the pact.
For the Europeans, the charade allowed for some political virtue-signaling at home, where Trump is deeply unpopular, and a pretense of independence from US foreign policy. Germany, France and Britain went so far as to create a “special purpose vehicle,” known as Instex, to try and work around US sanctions — knowing full well that no European company that hoped to remain solvent would use it.
The pretense can now be dropped. Having rejected the Iranian ultimatum, the Europeans should now state clearly what they will do if the regime does break out of the nuclear deal’s limits on enrichment.
Europe doesn’t have many options here. There’s not much point in taking matters up at the United Nations — Russia and China are almost certain to veto any action against Iran. But the Europeans can, and should, slap on their own sanctions on the regime. They can also more forcefully speak and act against Iranian mischief across the region, and especially in the vital shipping lanes of the Gulf. The British navy’s decision to send ships to the Gulf is one example of the actions they could take.
This will require the Europeans to set aside their disapproval of the Trump administration’s behavior. But they might find satisfaction in knowing that backing the US could help reduce the tensions in the Gulf by influencing both Iranian and American actions. The sight of Europe rallying behind the US should make it plain to the Iranians that their attempt to split the Western alliance has failed. With any luck, sober minds in Tehran will recognize that more bad behavior will be met by unified response.
On the other side, by returning to the American camp, the Europeans will better be able to make the case that sanctions and diplomacy should be given time and space to work — rather than precipitous actions that might lead to war.