US diplomacy on Iran is failing. The result is that the EU can no longer allow this transatlantic drift to continue, and take the lead itself, writes Guillaume Xavier-Bender.
Guillaume Xavier-Bender is Non-Resident Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund
Amidst a global pandemic which has further battered transatlantic relations, European diplomacy might yet again be facing a crossroads when it comes to Iran. The US is failing in its so-called “maximum pressure” approach, and the clearer this failure becomes, the greater the risk of conflict. Both countries may have been been flirting with confrontation over the past year, culminating in direct strikes in January 2020, yet restrain still prevailed. But this may not be for long as struggling leaders may feel they soon need a clear win. Stuck in between, Europe can no longer afford waiting for something to happen to play its appeasing role – it needs to take the lead. This time though, this might mean breaking from the ongoing pattern of reacting to the US, in order to broker a more comprehensive arrangement.
One of the only achievements of the “maximum pressure” approach has indeed been that it has consolidated a transatlantic divide that has seen Europeans trailing. Repeated efforts to bring back everyone to the negotiating table have not been successful, instruments that could allow for renewed economic exchanges with Iran without violating US sanctions, such as INSTEX, have been so far insignificant, and diplomatic initiatives to avoid the re-escalation of tensions have stalled.
Moreover, while Europe’s original strategy to focus on Iran’s nuclear program before tackling other concerns related to its ballistic program and regional activities allowed to conclude the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the launch of Iran’s Qased rocket on 22 April indicates that such a strategy is no longer adequate. One, the launch was unexpected; two, it featured technological milestones and inventiveness which might have assumed to have been battered by renewed sanctions; three, it was conducted by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and not by the Iranian Space Agency; four, by all accounts, it was successful. While grey areas persist when it comes to the possibility of such technology being converted for ballistic purposes, the event is significant in that it confirms that the IRGC is openly taking risks to assert its role in any future confrontation with the US and its allies in the region.
This was already the case in early 2020 when the IRGC fired at US troops in Iraq in response to the assassination of Iranian General Qassim Suleimani, and not the Artesh, the regular armed forces. Since then, as foreseen, the IRGC’s Quds Force and other proxy groups have comforted their influence in the region by continuing to target US assets. And when in April, US President Donald Trump ordered “to shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass [US] ships at sea”, he was referring to a known IRGC tactic.
All things considered, the US “maximum pressure” approach has in fact strengthened Iran’s position, and in particular, the IRGC’s. Renewed US sanctions have hurt the Iranian economy and to some extent solidified internal divides within Iran, but not to the point of triggering regime change as originally hoped for by some. The approach clearly has not convinced Iranian leadership to scale back its regional and ballistic activities, nor to negotiate any deal with the US With Iran persisting in its nuclear activities, milestones approaching in the deal, political pressures mounting in the run-up to Presidential elections, and a global pandemic weakening leaders on both sides, the powder keg is warming-up.
This is where Europe can make a difference. The timeline is October 2020, when the conventional arms embargo on Iran is due to end. Should it not be renewed, the US is contemplating using a JCPOA snapback clause to reimpose UN sanctions on Iran – despite no longer being a party to the deal. Beyond the contorted arguments put forward by the State Department to justify such a possibility, Europeans will need to decide whether to back the US in asking for an extension of the embargo – which could be the final blow to the JCPOA – or to oppose the US – which could trigger the snapback, and therefore burry the JCPOA. Neither of those options are in Europe’s interests. Yet neither are also in the interest of Iran nor of the US should they want to avoid stumbling into conflict. The EU, France, Germany and the UK should therefore take the lead in designing a broader arrangement that would preempt a consequential stalemate in October.
That such a deal needs to include a renewed commitment to the principles and original objectives of the JCPO is evident, but it should focus on providing reassurances concerning Iranian military capabilities, conventional and ballistic. It should build on French President Emmanuel Macron’s four-point plan of September 2019, which was derailed at the last minute. Technically, Europeans should negotiate parallel agreements with Iran and the US Given their mutual mistrust and current ideological drives, trying to bring them together at the same table would delay the process and create an additional layer of unpredictability. China and Russia might also be more willing to broker an arrangement with the European members of the UN Security Council at first. It would also allow Iran to claim victory that it fended-off U.S. allegations and aggression.
That Europe fully embraces a leadership role in securing a deal with Iran on conventional arms and ballistic capabilities may provide sufficient reassurances in Washington to avoid a showdown in the Security Council. It would also allow the Trump Administration to claim victory that “maximum pressure” worked to start talks on these issues of concern. At the same time, Europe should engage the US on proposing a comprehensive plan for the stability of the region that would include safety-nets to avoid accidental confrontation.
The task would be monumental but not impossible. Isn’t that what the European project is all about?