The European Union called for an “immediate de-escalation” of tensions in the Middle East on Monday (24 June), as the US government announced new “hard-hitting” sanctions on Iran after launching a series of cyber attacks on the country last week.
The sanctions will be applied to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his office, denying Iranian officials access to “billions of dollars” of financial assets, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said on Monday.
Tensions are growing in the Middle East after a US cyber offensive disabled computer systems that control rocket and missile launchers in Iran. The attacks came in retaliation for Iran’s alleged shooting of a US drone in international airspace.
In Brussels, a spokesperson for the EU’s foreign affairs office appealed for “urgent restraint” on all sides.
“Exclusively diplomatic routes are needed to resolve differences,” the EU spokesperson told EURACTIV, adopting a different approach to the more aggressive strategy of the US authorities, who are applying pressure on Iran in response to the country’s failure to limit its nuclear program.
Trump: Europeans are “making a lot of money” in Iran
Meanwhile, on Sunday (23 June), President Donald Trump questioned Europe’s economic involvement in Iran. Speaking to NBC, Trump said “Europeans are going out and making a lot of money,” with reference to the trade in motor vehicles between France and Iran.
However, the US President added that Europe could well be part of a future deal between the US and Iran, after the US pulled out of the Iran nuclear accord in the first half of 2018, to the ire of many in Europe.
French President Emmanuel Macron warned at the time, that the US’s withdrawal from the deal “would be a grave mistake,” adding it may even lead to “war” if there was nothing to replace the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran.
Despite Macron’s comments, the US pulled out from the deal shortly after, and is now attempting to broker a new, broader agreement. With regards to the EU’s position in the ongoing debate, Trump believes that the bloc can be won around.
“We’ve great relationships with Europe. I don’t mind Europe getting in the middle. Europeans would love to see a deal being made,” the US President said.
However, an EU spokesperson countered this claim, telling EURACTIV that the “EU remains committed to the full implementation of the JCPOA and calls on Iran to remain compliant with the agreement.”
US “very doubtful” about EU trade instrument for Iran
On Monday, EURACTIV caught up with Brian Hook, US Special Representative for Iran and Senior Policy Advisor to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who struck a more diplomatic tone with regards to Europe’s role in the dispute.
“We don’t advise those who are still in the deal on what their position is with regard to the deal. That’s something which they need to sort of decide in their own sovereign capacity,” Hook said.
The US special advisor voiced doubts however about Europe’s “special purpose vehicle” allowing EU businesses to trade with Iran despite the US restrictions, saying the so-called Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX) is “still not off the ground.”
In this regard, Hook said that he is “very doubtful that Iran is ever going to be able to put in place the financial transparency measures that would enable this to be able to actually conduct transactions,” thereby restricting the quantity of trade that can be conducted with Iran.
US wants “truly comprehensive” agreement with Iran
Hook also confirmed that the EU’s Foreign Affairs Chief, Federica Mogherini, discussed the matter with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a recent trip to Washington, telling EURACTIV that the US continues to be in “regular dialogue with the EU” on the subject of Iran.
While Hook was kind towards the EU’s involvement in the ongoing debate, he was firm in applying pressure on US allies around the world, including Europe.
“Any nation with an interest in promoting regional stability should make clear to Iran that its threats and its violence cannot be tolerated,” he said, adding that the US is seeking to devise a new deal that is “truly comprehensive” and not only limited to Iran’s nuclear program.
Any new agreement, Hook continued, “needs to address the spectrum of the trust and peace and security that Iran presents – so that’s the nuclear program, the missile program, Iran’s regional aggression and its arbitrary detention of dual nationals.”
US authorities are due to discuss the matter further during a meeting with E3 political directors in Paris on June 27. The E3 grouping comprises European government representatives from France, Germany and the United Kingdom, which remain inside the Iran nuclear deal.
Hook was clear on Monday that he believes Iran is not treating the current members of the JCPOA with due respect, saying that Iran is using “nuclear blackmail against the remaining parties to the deal.”
“They have made threats and we will have to see which of those threats that they decide to follow through on if they follow through,” he added.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]