By Edward Carney
The nations of Europe are apparently remaining defiant in the face of US President Donald Trump’s latest efforts to elicit comprehensive agreement among traditional Western adversaries over the appropriateness of his own administration’s assertive strategy regarding the Islamic Republic of Iran.
On Tuesday, Trump personally addressed the United Nations General Assembly and placed considerable emphasis on Iranian affairs, one day after the opening of a US-chaired Security Council meeting that is focused on the Middle East and gave rise to similarly assertive commentary about Iran’s regional meddling in malign activities.
But in the wake of that session and immediately prior to Trump’s speech, three European governments and the leadership of the European Union joined in issuing a statement that formalized their efforts to undermine the White House’s re-imposition of sanctions that had been suspended under the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Whereas Trump pulled out of that deal in May, citing its failure to alter Iran’s behavior in crucial areas other than uranium enrichment, the other signatories have remained committed to it and have used the past four months to exchange ideas for how to keep it in place despite the American pullout.
Analysts have generally gotten the impression that that commitment is having little practical effect, since numerous international businesses have already halted their exchanges with the Islamic Republic out of concern for US enforcement or an associated lack of financing.
This trend has been observed among businesses that are based in the European signatory countries, as well as in countries like India and South Korea that are not signatories but are highly reliant on their economic relations with the US.
Nevertheless, this has not stopped the United Kingdom, France, and Germany from announcing, alongside fellow signatories Iran, Russia, and China, that the European Union has established a financial facility known as the Special Purpose Vehicle with the express purpose of allowing companies to engage in transactions with Iranian counterparts while avoiding the American financial system and thus, in theory, avoiding American sanctions enforcement.
Additionally, French President Emmanuel Macron took the stage at the UN General Assembly on Tuesday shortly after Trump had spoken, and his speech consisted of what Agence France Presse described as “a thinly veiled response to President Donald Trump’s push for tough US-led sanctions.”
As an alternative, Macron called for dialogue and multilateralism. “What will bring a real solution to the situation in Iran and what has already stabilized it?” the French president asked rhetorically. “The law of the strongest? Pressure from only one side? No!”
This apparent rejection of Trump’s assertiveness is sure to be poorly received by prominent opponents of the Iranian regime, among them the French-headquartered National Council of Resistance of Iran. This and other advocates for regime change have tended to decry previous Western policies as “appeasement” while urging the US and its allies to negotiate from a position of strength, as they arguably failed to do in the run-up to the 2015 agreement.
Affiliates of the NCRI were in attendance at a protest outside the UN on Tuesday, organized by the Organization of Iranian-American Communities. The USA Today interviewed some of those protesters for a video segment, in which they declared their intention to make it known that the Iranian regime and President Hassan Rouhani, who was in attendance at the General Assembly, do not represent the Iranian people.
One protester characterized their protest as an extension of the domestic voices being expressed in Iran against the backdrop of protests that have been virtually non-stop since the beginning of the year.
This situation reflects what Reuters described as a prominent feature of President Trump’s UN speech and his administration’s overall approach to Iran policy, namely the effort to “drive a wedge between the regime and its people.”
Yet the protesters outside the UN insist, as does the NCRI in its official statements, that that wedge has always existed and that it has been growing deeper by virtue of the regime’s persistent and escalating repression, regardless of US policies.
Still, this perception of the situation inside the Islamic Republic is no doubt a source of justification for the continuation of hardline American policies, and ultimately for the adoption of those policies by the European Union and other world powers.
In reporting upon the latest information about a terrorist attack in the Iranian city of Ahvaz, NBC News pointed out that the bold plot, targeting a military parade led by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, was probably indicative of a situation that might be exploited by all opponents of the clerical regime, whether peaceful or armed, domestic or foreign-based.
Iranian officials were quick to seize upon Saturday’s attack as an opportunity to criticize the US and the Western world in general for supposedly backing the Arab separatists who claimed responsibility for the attack. However, those officials have cited no evidence to support the assertion, and the NBC News report indicated that there was still very little evidence to support any of the accusations or claims made about the attack by terrorist groups, the regime, or anyone else.
But the same report finds that while there is no known, direct connection between the attack and the broader protest movement that grew out of a mass uprising and December and January, the terror incident and the protests apparently came in response to the same perceived vulnerability of the Iranian regime.
And while the Trump administration has endorsed the peaceful protest movement and is recognizably working to exploit the same vulnerability in order to force a change of behavior in the Iranian government, critics of the European Union tend to see its member states as squandering an historic opportunity while helping Tehran to compensate for its vulnerability.
Multiple White House officials have reiterated over the past few months that a change in the behavior of the existing Iranian government is their key goal for the region. And on Tuesday, in remarks to the media ahead of his speech, President Trump declared that he is confident that such a change is forthcoming. The USA Today specifically quoted him as saying of the Iranian leadership, “they have no choice.”
He also insisted that he would only meet with Iranian officials for negotiations after a significant change in behavior and tone has already been recognized.
For his part, Rouhani reiterated the official Iranian position on Tuesday, according to the New York Times.
He insisted that neither he nor any other Iranian official would pursue new negotiations with the US unless Trump changes course and begins abiding by the JCPOA once again. But so far there has been no sign of the administration softening its tone, even in the face of the latest expressions of defiance by European partners.
Indeed, CBS News suggested on Tuesday that the creation of the Special Purpose Vehicle will only anger the White House and push it toward further action in service of the established goals.
Accordingly, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said in an interview with Face the Nation that European countries would need to carefully weigh the potential consequences of pursuing business relationships with Iran.
She then highlighted the multitudes of companies exiting the Iranian market, in the interest of concluding that decisions are already being made in favor of compliance with the American strategy.
Naturally, if Haley is correct about European policies ultimately coming into line with that strategy, it will go a long way toward realizing the situation already predicted by President Trump, in which the Iranians have no choice other than to acquiesce to Western demands, or else face overthrow by a restive domestic population.