On Wednesday, Reuters reported upon the growing pressure facing the European Union with regard to the future of the Iran nuclear deal and the prospect for a more assertive set of policies on the Islamic Republic. EU member states Britain, France, and Germany, each of which participated in the seven-party negotiations that led to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in July 2015, continued to hold talks with American officials this week in hopes of arriving at a threat that will keep the US in the deal.
In January, US President Donald Trump renewed the sanctions waivers put into place by the JCPOA but said that he would not do so when those waivers were next due for renewal in mid-May unless Congress and the European signatories addressed his concerns over what he has described as “the worst deal ever negotiated.” The Europeans view the existing agreement more favorably but have also conceded to a number of Trump’s points, including his insistence on restricting Iran’s ballistic missile activities, which were left out of the JCPOA.
To the extent that the European tone has become more assertive with regard to Iran, it has presumably been in response to the persistence of Iran’s confrontational and destabilizing activities, as well as the White House campaign to focus attention upon those activities. The issue of Iran’s escalating ballistic missile capabilities was kept in the spotlight late last year by a press conference in which US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley showcased evidenced for the Iranian origin of ballistic missiles that had been fired into Saudi Arabia by the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
In addition to insisting that these activities be reined in, Trump has insisted upon extending the JCPOA’s restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities so as to make them indefinite and prevent them from beginning to expire after 10 years. He has also demanded that current levels of access to the country be expanded for international nuclear inspectors. Presently, Iran has 28 days to respond to requests for access to new areas, and critics object that this gives the regime time to conceal evidence of nuclear-related activities. Furthermore, various Iranian officials have insisted that military sites will simply remain off-limits, and this declaration has yet to be tested by way of an international request.
By most accounts, the European signatories to the nuclear deal have proven less responsive to these demands, the fulfillment of which could be seen as directly undermining the JCPOA. Consequently, their efforts to press for new sanctions on Wednesday appeared to focus only on the tangential issues of ballistic missile development, terrorist support, and regional interference. London, Paris, and Berlin have reportedly presented the EU with a list of 15 names that could be targeted for travel bans and asset freezes. These are said to be individuals with ties to the ballistic missile program and Tehran’s activities in the Syrian Civil War, and some of them are evidently members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Insofar as the proposed sanctions do not directly address all of the White House’s demands, it leaves questions open regarding whether European efforts will satisfy the president and prevent him from withholding sanctions waivers in May. These questions are further strengthened by the fact that, according to Reuters and other outlets, the EU leadership has already begun to push back against the joint British-French-German proposal.
Nevertheless, the proposal itself highlights the willingness of at least some EU member states to strengthen their approach to Iran policy. At the same time, the resulting European discord goes to show that Trump’s ultimatum and the broader war of words between Washington and Tehran is forcing various nations of the world into a choice between one side and the other.
For the time being, nations that are stuck in the middle are still striving to maintain the status quo with both the US and Iran, as evidenced by the European signatories’ efforts to simultaneously appease the Trump administration and reaffirm their support for the JCPOA.
This sort of fence-sitting tactic is not unique to Europe. The Algemeiner reported on Wednesday that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had publicly expressed his desire to maintain a balance between Iranian and American influence over his country. “I’m keeping away from it,” he said of the conflict between the two longstanding adversaries. But as crises persist across the Middle East, this balancing act appears increasingly untenable.
With the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant all but defeated, there have been various suggestions that the main American objective in Iraq is shifting toward countering Iranian influence there. At the same time, Tehran is promoting its own entrenchment, particularly by opposing the disbandment of Shiite militias, over the objection of various Iraqi politicians who would like to see military power given back to a centralized Iraqi government. While the militias are increasingly integrated into Iraq’s regular armed forces, some are also known to swear allegiance to the Iranian supreme leader over and above the government of their own country.
At the same time that the diminishing role of ISIL has allowed those militias to revise their missions and potentially focus on undermining Western influences in the region, it has also reportedly provided Iran with an opening to expand its relations with other Islamic terrorist groups. MSN published a report on Wednesday which illustrated this phenomenon by quoting Musa Abu Marzouk, a senior Hamas official, as saying that Tehran and the Palestinian Sunni terrorist group are closer now than they have been since 2011 and the start of the Syrian Civil War.
Although Sunni forces were more natural allies of Hamas, they have largely been defeated and this has left the organization looking for a lifeline. Tehran has evidently been happy to provide that lifeline, hosting several Hamas delegations in recent months. Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard, has similarly reached out to Palestine’s Islamic Jihad, according to the MSN report. Ordinarily, the Shiite Islamic Republic would be at odds with Sunni organizations, but Tehran has a demonstrated track record of overlooking sectarian differences in order to facilitate conflict with mutual enemies of Shiite and Sunni militants, chiefly the US and Israel.
As the trend of Iranian outreach to such groups continues along its present course, it may further complicate the decision-making process for nations in the Middle East, Europe, and elsewhere who find themselves pulled in opposite directions by Tehran and Washington. The European Union may be willing to defy American ultimatums if doing so puts it on the side of an Islamic Republic that is apparently complying with the nuclear deal. But it may be less willing to do so if that also puts it on the side of a still-growing roster of terrorists.
It is perhaps with this in mind that some of Iran’s adversaries are stepping up their efforts to highlight Iran’s past and ongoing misbehavior, including not just ballistic missile tests and support for the Assad regime in Syria, but also political assassinations and bombings that have been attributed either directly to Iranian operatives or to their proxies across the Middle East.
Iranian.com reported upon an example of this trend on Wednesday, noting that Saudi Prince Khalid Bin Salman Bin Abdul Aziz had made a series of tweets calling attention to past instances of Iran-backed terrorism and declaring that “the Iranian regime continues to violate all international laws in a test of the international community’s will.”
His statements coincided with a visit to the United States by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who is next in line for the Saudi throne. Salman has notably used that visit to similarly highlight Iranian misbehavior and to urge American leaders toward more confrontational policies. That pressure may ultimately have a knock-on effect upon Europe, as negotiations continue among the US, Britain, France, and Germany in the run-up to the May 12 deadline for an agreement on the future of the nuclear deal.