By David Gilbert/Vise
President Donald Trump has spent the last three years alienating allies in Europe and undermining the decades-old relationship with NATO. Now he needs their help.
Trump on Wednesday appealed to the leaders of Germany, France, and the U.K. to help resolve the crisis in Iran by abandoning the nuclear deal and join his campaign of “maximum pressure.”
While NATO has pledged to do more, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have ignored Trump's demands, while British Prime Minister Boris Johnson chose to phone Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Thursday morning, reaffirming the U.K.’s support for the Iran nuclear deal. None of this should shock anyone given how the relationship between Washington and its allies across the Atlantic has deteriorated during Trump’s presidency. Iran has been central to this breakdown since Trump unilaterally withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in May 2018 over the objections of France, Germany, and the U.K.
But as Trump threatens even more sanctions and Iran says it's abandoning all restrictions on uranium enrichment, Europe is caught in the middle.
“If the Europeans walk out, they will commit the same mistake Trump did, which is to lose the ability to go forward with snap-back sanctions and at the same time give the Iranians the license to completely shred any of the restrictions that they have on the nuclear program,” Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute, a Washington-based think tank, told VICE News.
But Europe’s reticence to kowtow to Trump’s desires is nothing new.
In August of last year when Trump and the U.S. went looking for support from Europe for a plan to bolster security in the Persian Gulf by providing patrols to ships passing through the Strait of Hormuz, the requests were met with silence and, in Berlin, with a blunt “no.”
Trump also didn’t bother to warn the Europeans about the deadly drone strike last week that could have sparked an all-out war.
“There is deep frustration on all sides,” Sanam Vakil, an Iran expert at London-based think tank Chatham House, told VICE News. “Case in point is that Trump didn’t confer or even alert Europe about the killing of [top Iranian General Qassem] Soleimani.”
On Wednesday, as Trump was making his demands in a televised address, Boris Johnson was speaking in the House of Commons reiterating his commitment to the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the JCPOA.
“It is our view that the JCPOA remains the best way of preventing nuclear proliferation in Iran, the best way of encouraging the Iranians not to develop a nuclear weapon,” Johnson told Parliament.
“We think that after this crisis has abated, which of course we sincerely hope it will, that way forward will remain,” Johnson added. “It is a shell that has currently been voided, but it remains a shell into which we can put substance again.”
Even an in-person appeal by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo didn’t work.
In a meeting in Washington on Wednesday, Pompeo failed to convince Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to abandon the Iran nuclear deal, with the U.K. lawmaker once again reiterating the U.K.’s commitment to the JCPOAin a BBC interview.
The offices of Macron, Merkel, and Johnson did not respond when VICE News asked whether they would meet Trump’s demand to withdraw from the nuclear pact. However, the trio made their desire to see the 2015 pact endure in a statement published earlier this week, calling on Tehran to “withdraw all measures that are not in line with the nuclear agreement.”
That statement was published in response to Iran’s announcement that it was removing all limits on uranium enrichment after the U.S. assassination of Soleimani, one of Iran's most powerful leaders.
However, Iran left the door open for a possible return to the nuclear deal if crippling economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. were lifted.
But rather than offering an olive branch on Wednesday, Trump doubled down, saying his administration would impose fresh “powerful sanctions” on Iran — without giving any specifics on what that might look like.
Under the terms of the JCPOA, all signatories are required to ensure that trading relationships with Iran remain normal as long as Iran abides by the terms of the nuclear deal.
Since the U.S. withdrawal, Iran has broken the terms of the pact on several occasions, but European countries have also failed to live up to their end of the bargain, preferring instead to implement Trump’s sanctions over fears of losing access to the U.S. market.
European countries are therefore doing a balancing act: trying to keep Tehran within the JCPOA while trying not to anger Trump and losing access to the lucrative U.S. market.
Trump may be hoping that the desire to maintain trading relations with the U.S. will be enough to make Europe act even if doesn't want to.
“With the JCPOA being in shambles, Trump is calculating that Europe will eventually be forced to trigger the dispute resolution mechanism — a process that even if dragged out will result in the return of snapback sanctions and the further isolation of Iran,” Vakil said.