The U.S. is at odds with one of its staunchest allies. Why?
The Trump Administration is on the verge of pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal. President Trump has described it as the worst deal ever. A U.S. departure would jeopardize the future of the deal and the May 12, 2018, deadline is fast approaching. America’s closest allies in Europe are concerned about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but also still strongly believe in the deal. This is perhaps the biggest transatlantic disagreement between the U.S. Administration and its allies. Outrider talked about it with our colleagues at the British American Security Information Council (BASIC) in their Whitehall office next door to London’s Ministry of Defence Headquarters.
OUTRIDER: Are our European allies as worried as the U.S. about a nuclear-armed Iran?
BASIC: Europe is physically closer to Iran than the U.S., and the blame that is felt in Iran towards the West is often as keenly directed at Europe as it is at the U.S. Indeed, Great Britain is seen in Iran as the original imperialist. Differences among allies over the deal are largely about the approach. Until now, governments have been consistently focused on a diplomatic agenda, backed up by judicious sanctions and an offer of positive relationships (carrot and stick if you like).
OUTRIDER: What is worrying the allies about the current U.S. approach?
BASIC: Relationships among nations are inescapable and permanent. There is no door marked “exit.” States trade, they fight wars, they negotiate… all of our actions reverberate through time. So when a leader thinks that a hard bargain can be squeezed out of another state, it often leads to trouble in the future. Threats to states tend to strengthen their resolve and they push back. Sometimes we do need to be clear on our boundaries, send signals, draw lines in the sand, and be prepared for conflict, but this should be done sparingly. It is not the norm. Leaders who normalize threats do a huge disservice to the international community.
For the U.S. to walk away now, and for the deal to collapse, would open the way for Iran to pursue nuclear weapons should they choose to do so. This would almost certainly lead others in the region to race in the same direction.
The Iran deal came out of years of pressure and negotiation in which the international community gradually unified around this compromise. The Iranians accepted major constraints on their civil nuclear program that other countries would find intolerable, and the level of assurance to the international community is unprecedented. For the U.S. to walk away now, and for the deal to collapse, would open the way for Iran to pursue nuclear weapons should they choose to do so. This would almost certainly lead others in the region to race in the same direction. Can we trust states like Saudi Arabia to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists? For the U.S. to renege on the deal would also deeply undermine the trust that U.S. allies and other nations have in American reliability.
OUTRIDER: So what are Europeans doing to stop the U.S. from walking away?
BASIC: This is the first time in many years that Europeans have presented a united front and lobbied in Washington against the stated policy of the White House. One only has to look at President Macron’s and Chancellor Merkel’s visits to Washington this April to see the importance of this issue for European governments. Already, more than 500 British, French and German Parliamentarians have signed a joint letter to Congress urging their counterparts to support the deal. And a number of current and former diplomats, such as Sir Adam Thompson, have been running continuous delegations to Capitol Hill to convince Washington that the deal is in its interest.
OUTRIDER: Yet, President Trump believes the Iran deal is very bad. What is Europe’s view on how to improve the situation?
BASIC: The Iran deal is not perfect, but almost every other ally believes it is the best we could achieve. The deal excluded missiles and regional security for a reason—because including them would mean no deal. Trump is deeply mistaken if he thinks piling on more pressure can improve the situation. Europeans do want to deal directly with missile and regional security concerns. Macron has already proposed negotiating a "new deal" to curb Iran’s military power and regional activities, but for Europeans, such efforts must not undermine the nuclear deal.
OUTRIDER: What might Europeans do if the Trump Administration pulls out of the deal?
Pulling out of the deal will destroy any possibility for the international community to build effective incentives for Iran to engage constructively.
BASIC: Europeans remain keen to keep close to the U.S. They understand the mutual benefit and importance of stability, and will try to avoid conflict with Washington. Adam Thompson rightly notes that Washington can’t expect its European allies to thank the U.S. for making security worse in their neighborhood. In his words, the situation would be “an ugly mess.” If the U.S. applies sanctions on European firms doing business with Iran, there is a very real danger that this will drive a wedge deeper between the U.S. and Europe with far-reaching implications for the transatlantic relationship and for global governance.
If the U.S. does not apply sanctions, it will be ineffective in applying pressure on Iran. Pulling out of the deal will destroy any possibility for the international community to build effective incentives for Iran to engage constructively. Moreover, it is unlikely any new agreement could offer the deal’s current assurances if the U.S. is seen as an uncredible partner.
OUTRIDER: In the end, is this simply a transatlantic difference in how we face a dangerous world full of (nuclear) threats?
BASIC: People often assume that the U.S. is from Mars and Europe is from Venus, but this is an oversimplification. Like Americans, Europeans are deeply divided on how we effectively develop the global mechanisms to halt proliferation and achieve disarmament. However, there is a greater emphasis on arms control and mutual restraint in Europe, based upon its history of devastating conflict on a horrific scale. Nuclear threats, such as those from the Middle East, can only be contained and rolled back by establishing laws and agreed to standards, in which states accept their mutual responsibilities to each other. This demands that we move towards nuclear disarmament and tight control of military technologies.
OUTRIDER: Why should Americans care what the allies think?
BASIC: The U.S. is powerful but not so much that it can dictate terms globally. This would over-extend the military and bankrupt the country. Global governance requires cooperation and negotiation. If the U.S.doesn’t engage, it will leave a power vacuum that will be filled by states with different values. U.S. vital interests are tied to a fully functioning international system, where states can work together.
BASIC: What do Americans generally think about Trump’s approach to allies and the international community?
OUTRIDER: Americans are currently very divided politically. Certainly, a portion of America is pleased with the Administration’s “America First” policy, but others view the policy as self-defeating and isolationist. Historically, our strong alliances have helped foster stability in turbulent times. As the international security situation becomes more competitive and less cooperative, it would be worth our time and effort to strengthen our alliances, not weaken them.
BASIC: Are Americans also worried about how this is all going to end when nuclear weapons are involved?
OUTRIDER: From a U.S. perspective, the worry is that the United States is withdrawing from its leadership role on these issues. If America exits the deal, but our allies and Iran remain in the deal, the result is an isolated and ineffective U.S., unable to influence Iran without the backing of its friends and partners. If instead, the deal falls apart as a result of a U.S. exit, then the worry is that Iran will resume its nuclear weapons program and within a year we’ll be worse off than before.
Additionally, there are concerns about how a U.S. withdrawal from the deal will influence any future diplomacy with North Korea.
What You Can Do
To learn more about the importance of the Iran Deal, visit Outrider’s article The Threat of a Nuclear Iran.
To see what action Europeans are taking, read the letter from 500 British, French, and German Parliamentarians to their counterparts in the U.S. Congress or check out BASIC's website.
If you are concerned about the U.S. sticking with the Iran Deal, let your elected officials know your views. This website makes it easy to find and reach out to your representatives: