On Wednesday, Agence France Presse reported upon some of the European responses to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s recent announcement that his country was preparing for an expansion of its uranium enrichment activities, in anticipation of a collapse of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal following US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the deal last month.
The report focused on French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who warned that Khamenei’s rhetoric was taking the country close to a “red line,” past which Europe would no longer be able to pursue its efforts to keep the deal in effect despite American non-participation.
In fact, more than just abandoning their current plans, the Europeans would respond by joining the US in imposing new sanctions if Iran took its nuclear activity “to the next level,” according to Le Drian. Such statements are broadly in line with the tone that France has struck in earlier conversations with and about the Islamic Republic of Iran. In the first place, French negotiators were credited with some of the strongest demands during the seven-party talks leading to the 2015 agreement. But afterward, France was among the first to explore new business deals with Iranian companies. And since then, France has largely continued its economic outreach while also urging international action on some of Iran’s worrying behaviors, including its ballistic missile development and involvement in the Syrian Civil War.
In talks with French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a point of focusing on these other issues, telling reporters later that he did not ask France to pull out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action this time. Netanyahu explained that he is confident the nuclear deal will collapse under the existing economic pressures, and the AFP report seems to mostly justify that confidence. It indicates that a number of multinationals, including some headquartered in France, have already pulled out of their dealings with France or signaled their intent to do so in the face of the threat from US sanctions. This will presumably diminish the incentive for the French government to preserve the agreement that made those dealings possible, especially if the Iranian regime is simultaneously threatening to cross what have been declared to be red lines.
Nonetheless, other reports on Wednesday indicated that France, the United Kingdom, and Germany are all still engaged in efforts to protect themselves from US sanctions for the sake of retaining the framework of the JCPOA. Al Jazeera reports that the European Union has updated legislation that would bar member states from implementing US sanctions against companies that do business with Iran, and would establish a framework for recovering any damages incurred as a result of those sanctions.
The legislation would also authorize the European Investment Bank to provide financing for projects in the Islamic Republic, although the ultimate decision about whether to do so in any particular case would remain up to the leadership of the EIB. The potential efficacy of the EU legislation was called strongly into question even before the update took place, and the latest reports only serve to reiterate and add to those doubts. The EIB indicated, for instance, that it simply cannot ignore US sanctions even in the presence of blocking legislation.
This pushback underscores the fact that Europe’s best chance of maintaining the status quo established by the JCPOA will most likely not involve direct confrontation of US sanctions but rather an effort to secure exemptions from them. Toward that end, ministers from France, the UK, and Germany wrote a joint letter to the US Secretary of State and Secretary of the Treasury on Monday, making the case for exemptions that might keep the JCPOA alive while allowing the US to continue operating outside of it.
Of course, it is doubtful that the Trump White House, which recently imposed trade tariffs on a number of its allies as part of its “America first” initiative, will prove receptive to such an appeal. The president has not even granted exemptions to the US-based Boeing Company, which entered into deals with Iranian entities in 2016 and 2017 that would have been worth nearly 20 billion dollars. On Wednesday, AFP reported that a spokesperson for the company announced that no deliveries would be made in line with those agreements, signaling that they are effectively dead.
The White House’s lack of receptiveness to the economic appeals of its allies will presumably be paralleled by a lack of receptiveness to those allies’ arguments regarding global security. Reuters quoted the European ministers’ letter as saying, “An Iranian withdrawal from the (nuclear agreement) would further unsettle a region where additional conflicts would be disastrous.” But Trump’s objections to the JCPOA were largely grounded in concerns about the sustained effect that Iran has reportedly had – both before and after the signing of the deal – on the proliferation of disastrous conflicts in the broader Middle East.
The White House continues to underscore that point more than a month after pulling out of the JCPOA. As an example of this trend, the Center for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America points out that Sigal Mandelker, the Treasury Department’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, spoke to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Tuesday and reported that the latest estimate of the amount of money paid by Tehran to the Hezbollah terrorist group puts that figure at approximately 700 million dollars, or three times the previous estimates.
CAMERA notes that Hezbollah exerts de facto control over the Lebanese state, has attacked US allies in the region, and was responsible for more American deaths than any other terrorist group prior to the Al Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001. The vigorous Iranian funding of that group is a key reason why Trump and other opponents of the JCPOA have remained nervous about the prospect of Iran gaining access to unfrozen assets and new revenue streams from Europe and other regions of the world.
Many European policymakers share that concern even though the EU is still generally working to preserve the JCPOA. At the same time, those concerns may also be exerting an influence on some of Iran’s allies, putting strain on those relationships and lending more credence to Benjamin Netanyahu’s predication that the nuclear deal will collapse on its own in the near future.
Al Jazeera reported on Wednesday that tensions were growing between Iran and Russia as the two states order contrasting military maneuvers in Syria, where both have been backing the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. Russian troops were briefly positioned at the border between Syria and Lebanon before being replaced by Syrian Army troops. The move was widely interpreted as a show of opposition to the continued presence of other forces like Iranian proxies and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, especially in regions close to Israel, which is also an ally of Russia.
The Al Jazeera report notes that this is not the first such signal to come out of Moscow, which has long maintained goals in Syria that are different from those being pursued by Tehran, although the two have fought side-by-side up to this point. Opponents of the Iranian regime have repeatedly suggested that these divergent goals could be leveraged to put more international pressure on Iran over its regional activities. This logic may apply even if the international community continues to disagree over the JCPOA, but if Supreme Leader Khamenei’s defiant tone continues to push the Islamic Republic to cross red lines regarding the nuclear deal, that disagreement may soon be a moot point.