Let Europe Make Friends (and Deals) With Iran
Germany and France may have been quick to travel to Tehran following the nuclear deal — but that doesn’t mean they’re not still good partners to the United States.
High-ranking European officials' recent visits to Tehran quickly following the July 14 nuclear deal signal that Europe has long had an appetite for exploring increased political and economic cooperation with Iran. The first of these visits was made on July 19 by German Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel, who was accompanied by a delegation of German companies; their three-day trip was focused on bolstering economic cooperation between the two countries. Laurent Fabius’s July 29 visit to Iran -- the first such trip made by a French foreign affairs minister in 12 years -- was more politically oriented; talks among delegates were focused on the regional crisis in the Middle East and Syria in particular.
High-ranking European officials’ recent visits to Tehran quickly following the July 14 nuclear deal signal that Europe has long had an appetite for exploring increased political and economic cooperation with Iran. The first of these visits was made on July 19 by German Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel, who was accompanied by a delegation of German companies; their three-day trip was focused on bolstering economic cooperation between the two countries. Laurent Fabius’s July 29 visit to Iran — the first such trip made by a French foreign affairs minister in 12 years — was more politically oriented; talks among delegates were focused on the regional crisis in the Middle East and Syria in particular.
Europe’s willingness to renew ties with Iran is hardly surprising, considering the political and economic capital European policymakers have invested in the nuclear negotiations since 2003. And European countries — in particular the so-called E3 of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom — have had a vested interest in avoiding further military confrontation in the Middle East after the Iraq War and in solidifying transatlantic unity over the West’s approach to Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Still, these early post-deal visits are generating some skeptical reactions in Washington. Critics of the deal negotiated by the P5+1 countries fear that, given their renewed interests and investments in Iran, European countries will now be less likely to reimpose sanctions should Iran violate the deal. Or they worry that these countries will now be reluctant to address concerns surrounding Iran’s regional agenda beyond the scope of the nuclear issue. Among other examples, a July 27 Wall Street Journal op-ed titled “France Throws In the Towel on Iran” asked whether a country like France could still “get a shot at the big-bucks contracts … without renouncing a principled decade of insisting Iran must be stopped?” And in the ongoing hearings about the Iran deal in the U.S. Congress, several lawmakers have also wondered whether snap-backing sanctions could be done swiftly and in coordination with America’s allies in Europe. Sen. Marco Rubio recently underlined that “if Europe intends to pursue a strategy that empowers an unreformed Iran, America will put our security interests first.”
It’s possible that some of these concerns may not be about bracing against the possibility of Iran’s future bad behavior regarding nuclear nonproliferation. The business community in the United States is likely to be frustrated over the potential for European companies to invest again in Iran’s markets while U.S. primary sanctions will still mostly prevent U.S. companies from doing the same thing. Despite existing provisions in the Iran deal to facilitate specific transactions between the United States and Iran — such as the sale of commercial passenger aircraft or the prospect of transactions with non-U.S. subsidiaries of U.S. companies in sectors to be determined — Europe will indeed remain (at least for the near future) in a far better position to do business with Iran than the United States.
But when it comes to the bigger picture, these criticisms of Europe are unfair and largely irrelevant. Europe has played a critical role in creating the conditions for a diplomatic settlement of the nuclear crisis with Iran. Indeed, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom have been faithful and constructive negotiating partners for the United States, especially as the negotiations became more intense following President Hassan Rouhani’s election in 2013. And their long experience of negotiating with Iran, informed by their own negotiation of a comprehensive agreement with Iran in 2004 and 2005, even allowed them sometimes to be more demanding with Iran, when necessary, than the United States.
Perhaps more importantly, after 2010 Europe imposed tough and costly autonomous sanctions on the Iranian economy. In 2012, for example, Europeans declared an oil embargo against Iran at a time when the United States was only hoping they would reduce their imports, as a first step. Europeans also cut designated Iranian banks from the SWIFT financial-messaging network after years of French outreach. And while the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon represented a threat to the whole international community, European economies were the ones that paid the highest price to prevent it from materializing. According to Eurostat figures, trade between the European Union and Iran collapsed 76 percent between 2011 and 2014, from 27.8 billion euros in 2011 to 6.6 billion euros in 2014. As a matter of fact, years of U.S. unilateral sanctions before 2010 didn’t really change Iran’s calculus until massive sanctions enforced by the EU were implemented in 2011 and 2012 and complemented U.S. efforts.
Therefore, the idea that Europe is somehow facing a choice between upholding its commitment to fight nuclear nonproliferation in Iran and doing business with Iran seems far-fetched. Europe clearly chose nonproliferation over business when it mattered the most. And there’s no real basis or facts that seriously suggest Europe would not do it again if Iran cheated on its commitments. To start with, new business relationships won’t materialize before Iran complies with its obligations, because sanctions will only be lifted after the International Atomic Energy Agency confirms Iran has done so — likely not before early 2016.
To be sure, critics of the deal are right to point out that the enforcement mechanisms in the deal offer only limited options for responding to potential violations on Iran’s part, but this has nothing to do with Europeans in particular. The deal only envisions a full reimposition of sanctions in case Iran did not comply with its obligations under the deal. But while an obvious violation like the construction of an undeclared facility would obviously justify such a move, less obvious violations may not justify risking the whole agreement and the benefits it brings to both parties. The United States should work with Europeans to craft partial sanctions snap-back provisions — such as limited financial sanctions, for instance — that could address Iranian compliance issues without jeopardizing the whole deal.
Beyond the deal’s implementation, maintaining close and trustful transatlantic cooperation on Iran will be critical to addressing concerns raised in the Middle East by the agreement and in assessing whether additional cooperation with Iran could contribute to stabilizing ongoing conflicts in the region. While the United States and its European allies have clearly shared the objective of preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon and a strategy to achieve it, they do not necessarily see eye to eye on the best way to deal with the regional turmoil and the role Iran should play in stabilizing the situation.
For instance, while the United States has been focusing on fighting the Islamic State in Iraq, many Europeans — and France in particular — have insisted that the Islamic State can’t be defeated until the civilian conflict in Syria is halted and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is removed from power. Iran may share a tactical interest in contributing to the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq, but it has been less willing to help stabilize the situation in Syria, to say the least. European countries like France and the United Kingdom will be crucial partners to the United States in exploring potential ways for regional cooperation, if only for their close relationships with several Arab states, in particular in the Persian Gulf.
Europeans deserve credit for their determined and coherent policy, which helps ensure an exclusively peaceful nuclear program in Iran — and not skepticism over their willingness to explore the opportunities of a diplomatic breakthrough that they helped secure. The full lifting of the nuclear-related sanctions should be viewed as a benefit of the deal, not as one of its flaws. And no one can reasonably expect Europe to enforce strong sanctions in the future if it is not enable to enjoy the benefits when those sanctions actually work, as they have in the case of the nuclear negotiations with Iran. That’s why, for the sake of sanctions credibility, the United States needs to ensure that the evolution of its own sanctions framework under the deal does not undermine that.
The Iran deal isn’t perfect, and it even has some significant limitations — it will only temporarily constrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions and therefore only partially achieve the objectives the Europeans set for the negotiations 13 years ago. But it is fundamentally in Europe’s strategic interests that this deal be implemented as planned and in its interests to see that it works. In the implementation phase (which should begin in a few months), Europe will be an asset in enforcing the deal, and any new business relationships formed with Iran in the meantime will not detract from that. And should constraints imposed by the deal lapse sometime down the road, Europe’s commitment to ensuring an exclusively peaceful program in Iran will remain a critical piece of any international strategy for containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
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