A political chasm over the Iran nuclear deal and Russia could put the United States and its European allies on a collision course reminiscent of the run-up to the Iraq War.
- By Colum LynchColum Lynch is Foreign Policy's award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. Lynch previously wrote Foreign Policy's Turtle Bay blog, for which he was awarded the 2011 National Magazine Award for best reporting in digital media., Dan De LuceDan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent.
European governments are launching a concerted appeal to persuade President-elect Donald Trump to not abandon the Iran nuclear deal or NATO’s tough stance toward Russia, warning of dire consequences that could raise the risk of war and weaken the transatlantic alliance. In a closed-door meeting this week, Foreign Policy has learned, diplomats from Europe, Canada, and other allied nations raised their concerns about the course of Trump’s foreign-policy priorities with a key member of the president-elect’s transition team.
The European delegates told Trump advisor James Carafano that they hoped the new administration would continue to embrace shared values, including upholding human rights and a shared defense policy with NATO at its core. During the private meeting Monday, the Europeans also asked Carafano about the new administration’s approach to the Iran nuclear deal, according to an official with knowledge of details of the exchange and who summarized it for FP. Foreign delegates emerged from the meeting with no idea of Trump’s plans for Iran, the official said.
Eastern European diplomats who were at the meeting sought to drive home the importance of ensuring that any U.S. rapprochement with Russia did not come at the expense of NATO’s most vulnerable members, particularly small Baltic countries living in the shadow of a newly assertive Russia. They said they expected Washington to uphold U.S. pledges made at NATO summits in Warsaw and Wales, reaffirming commitments to defend Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland in the face of mounting Russian aggression.
Carafano, the vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation, had invited senior diplomats to a meeting at the think tank’s Washington headquarters to hear out concerns about the incoming administration. Carafano insisted he was not hosting the event on behalf of the president-elect. But diplomats and congressional staffers said they understand he is likely to emerge as the Trump team’s liaison for State Department matters. A spokesman at the Heritage Foundation said Carafano was away this week and couldn’t be reached. Politico first reported Carafano was associated with the Trump transition.
Alarmed at Trump’s comments as a candidate, in which he vowed to ditch or “renegotiate” the Iran nuclear agreement and praised Russian President Vladimir Putin, Western diplomats fear that if Trump makes good on his campaign rhetoric, he will trigger a dramatic rift in America’s relations with European allies not seen since the run-up to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.
U.S. lawmakers say the Trump team has yet to explain its plans on the Iran nuclear accord, but Republicans expect the new administration to take a much tougher line toward Tehran. The 2015 deal imposed limits on the country’s nuclear program, designed to prevent it from building atomic weapons, in return for the lifting of damaging economic sanctions. It was negotiated for years between Iran and world powers. But members of Trump’s transition team, and the hawkish figures under consideration for possible senior positions in his administration, all share a critical view of the Iran deal and have spoken out in favor of imposing fresh economic sanctions on Tehran.
Although Trump has broken with GOP orthodoxy on foreign policy in some areas, he is firmly in line with the Republican Party establishment when it comes to the Iran deal. The issue is likely to be a top priority for the new president and Republican-controlled Congress.
“This is one of the few foreign-policy issues that will unite the disparate elements of the Republican Party,” said Mark Dubowitz, who has advised lawmakers and two successive administrations on sanctions against Tehran.
“On the Iran issue, I think there is wall-to-wall support for a different approach to Iran,” said Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. The nuclear deal “as we know it, is fundamentally going to change, and Iran policy as we know it is going to change.”
Although Trump’s team has yet to announce who will take key national security posts, much less articulate the president-elect’s approach to Iran, European leaders are lining up to try to persuade Trump to honor the nuclear deal.
Europeans see Trump’s criticism of the Iran agreement as part of a broader, and troubling, tendency to favor dismantling the key pillars of an international order based on the rule of law and human rights. As another example, they cite Trump’s rejection of a landmark climate change pact, which was struck this year in Paris and which came into force just two weeks ago, days before his surprise election victory.
Speaking Tuesday at a climate conference in Marrakesh, Morocco, French President François Hollande urged Trump to back the so-called Paris Agreement, which he characterized as “irreversible.”
“The United States — the most powerful economy in the world, the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases — must respect the commitments that were made,” Hollande said, according to The Associated Press. “It’s not simply their duty; it’s in their interest.”
One U.N. Security Council diplomat, speaking to FP on condition of anonymity, called the Iran deal, the climate agreement, and sustainable development plans “probably the biggest, most often quoted successes for multilateralism over the past year or so.” Yet all “are precisely the things the incoming administration has used as examples of things that need to change.”
“The result of the U.S. election has not changed our view of any of those successes,” the diplomat said. “We continue to think that the Iran deal is the single biggest and best thing that has happened recently in preventing Iran from ever acquiring nuclear weapons.”
European officials are also expressing growing alarm at Trump’s public expressions of admiration for Putin, whose forces launched a massive new round of airstrikes this week on eastern Aleppo, in Syria, hours after a reportedly congenial phone conversation with Trump. Russia, and the rise of nationalism, poses a “strategic threat” to the international order, and “the international community needs to counter that,” the Security Council diplomat said.
In the coming days, Britain, Germany, and other European governments intend to press Trump’s team to preserve the Iran deal, to reaffirm its support for NATO, and to challenge Russia’s aggressive policies from Syria to Ukraine.
“We will make clear” to the new U.S. leadership that “we need to be sticking with the international system … and that does not mean suddenly changing our policy and tacking in behind Russian policy,” the council diplomat said.
Addressing concern about the fate of the Iran nuclear deal, a German Foreign Ministry spokesman told reporters in Berlin on Wednesday: “You can be sure that we will try to convince this [Trump] administration that what we agreed one and a half years ago and have since implemented, both in words and deeds, remains, from our point of view, the right policy.”
The European Union’s foreign-policy chief, Federica Mogherini, indicated the United States cannot simply dismiss the Iran pact. “Let me tell you very clearly that this is not a bilateral agreement. It is a multilateral agreement, endorsed by the U.N. Security Council resolution,” she said Sunday. “So it is in our European interest, but also in the U.N. interest and duty, to guarantee that the agreement is implemented in full.”
But former U.S. officials and sanctions experts say the incoming president has an array of options at his disposal to either kill the deal outright with the stroke of a pen or gradually undermine it by a thousand cuts.
The easiest way for Trump to scrap the deal would be to simply revoke waivers on nuclear-related sanctions under the executive branch’s authority, said Richard Nephew, who helped oversee sanctions policy at the State Department until he stepped down last year.
Or the president could impose a spate of new sanctions on Iran for activity unrelated to its nuclear program, such as violations of human rights, support for terrorism, or ballistic missile launches. Any one could squeeze Iran’s economy once again. The Treasury Department under a Trump presidency also could decide to issue new, stricter guidance to foreign banks, discouraging them from handling transactions involving Iranian firms.
The most radical option would be for the United States to declare that it believes Iran has failed to comply with its obligations under the 2015 agreement by citing various alleged technical violations. That would trigger sanctions to “snap back” under the terms of the deal.
There are “six ways to Sunday” to scuttle the nuclear deal, but the United States would have to pay an “exceedingly high cost” in doing so, said Daryl Kimball, the executive director for the Washington-based Arms Control Association.
“There is a very high risk it would open the door for Iran to reconstitute its uranium enrichment activities,” Kimball said. And the U.S. “would not have the backing of our European allies or other partners.… They will be in for a rude awakening.”
Western diplomats and other supporters of the agreement, which was the product of years of difficult negotiations, fear a precipitous U.S. move to scrap the nuclear deal will risk a damaging rupture with Europe that will spill over into other issues and poison the atmosphere at the start of a new administration. They also worry the collapse of the agreement would undercut more moderate elements of the regime in Tehran and prompt Iran to resume its quest for nuclear weapons. In turn, that could trigger tensions and potentially lead to U.S. or Israeli military action.
“I think it would be a very dangerous development if the Iran deal failed” due to a U.S. unilateral move, said another Western diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Apart from the risk of a new war in the Middle East, billions of dollars are also at stake, and European governments will be angered if a new U.S. administration closes off investment opportunities in the Iranian market. Under the terms of the agreement, Western firms are once again eligible to do business with Tehran. But because many U.S. sanctions remain in place, including prohibitions against doing business in dollars, few firms have been willing to enter the regulatory minefield that comes with dealing with Tehran.
A few large corporations have started to test the waters. France’s Total has entered into a $6 billion deal to help develop an offshore gas field in the Persian Gulf. Under the terms of the agreement, Total, China National Petroleum Corp., and Iran’s state-owned Petropars will mine the Gulf for gas.
Two airline companies also have entered pacts with Tehran. Boeing, the massive U.S. airline manufacturer, has struck a deal to provide Tehran with new passenger planes to help modernize its airline industry. France-based Airbus has also agreed to sell planes to Tehran. The Treasury Department has signed off on both deals that are worth tens of billions of dollars.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker has taken a less hawkish stance on the issue. But Corker said Tuesday that the incoming Trump administration’s first priority should be to demand that Iran strictly adhere to the agreement, which he and other Republicans say it has violated. He stopped short, however, of calling for killing off the nuclear deal and cautioned that the United States would need to make its case effectively to European allies.
“I think that what we have to remember is we have to keep the Europeans and others with us in this process,” Corker told MSNBC. The Tennessee senator has been mentioned as a possible choice for Trump’s secretary of state, though speculation recently has shifted to other possible nominees, including former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Republicans in Congress are divided on tactics in dealing with Iran. Some favor tearing up the deal, whereas others seek to impose new sanctions while remaining open to negotiate a follow-on agreement to address what they deem as flaws in the existing accord. Trump has criticized the nuclear deal repeatedly and has suggested he would “renegotiate” the accord.
President Barack Obama has portrayed the nuclear agreement as one of his proudest diplomatic achievements. At a Monday press conference, his first since Trump’s upset electoral victory over Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, Obama argued against dismantling a deal he maintained has proved successful so far.
“To unravel a deal that’s working and preventing Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon would be hard to explain — particularly if the alternative were to have them freed from any obligations and go ahead and pursue a weapon,” Obama said.
One tentative idea circulating among right-leaning policy experts would be to ratchet up pressure on Iran while easing off sanctions against Moscow over its intervention in Ukraine — an exchange to placate Russia and Europe over the nuclear deal. The Ukraine-related sanctions have badly damaged Russia’s economy and hit some sectors in Europe, and some EU governments are anxious to see the restrictions lifted.
“What if you said to German businesses, you either do business with Russia or with Iran, but you don’t get to do business with both?” Dubowitz said.
Russian officials, who heartily welcomed Trump’s electoral triumph, are offering some cautiously optimistic predictions about what the new president might deliver for Moscow. Speaking Tuesday at an investment forum in New York, former Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin said U.S.-Russia ties had a “50-50” chance of improving under Trump. He also predicted a gradual repeal of economic sanctions against Moscow was likely.
FP‘s Reid Standish and David Francis contributed to this article.
Photo credit: VAHID REZA ALAEI/AFP/Getty Images