Squaring the Triangle: Europe’s Strategic Position Between Iran and the US

Written by | Friday, October 16th, 2020

With four years of President Donald Trump in the White House coming to an end, there is some good news to be had: The 2015 Iranian nuclear deal is still alive. Admittedly, that’s a description of its general condition, not a diagnosis of good health. In fact, it is hard to foresee the agreement, officially the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), surviving another Trump term. On the other hand, the simple fact of former vice president Joe Biden winning the electoral college could enable the United States to build on the existing framework of the nuclear deal – whether through a “more for more” or “less for less” approach – to craft some sort of JCPOA 2.0, rather than constructing an entirely new agreement. For Europeans, this would mean resuming their role as a constructive mediator between Washington and Tehran.

For decades, Europe’s relations with Iran have been a function of a broader triangular relationship that includes both the United States and Iran. Transatlantic bonds have been the foundation not only of European security, but also of a rules-based international order for the past seven decades. The 2015 transatlantic agreement on how to deal with Iran has been the exception rather than the rule over the past 41 years. More often than not, policy-makers in European capitals have been at odds with their counterparts in Washington over how to deal with the regime in Tehran. Relations between Tehran and Washington have been fraught with enmity since 1979. In contrast, interactions between Iran and Europe – widely understood as the European Union or its member states – have been comparably less pronounced; in effect, they are open to influence from the other sides of the triangle – US-Iranian relations and the state of the transatlantic partnership.

The 2015 Iran nuclear deal had been at the core of this fragile triangle until the US withdrawal in May 2018. Since then, the JCPOA has gone from being the only unifying political issue among the three parties to becoming a hotly contested matter, initially between the Europeans and the United States, and later, following Iran’s gradual ceasing of its own commitments to the agreement, also between the EU and Iran. This comes on top of such persisting concerns as acts of sabotage in the Persian Gulf area and inside Iran, ongoing proxy wars in Syria and Yemen, regular rocket attacks in Iraq against US troops, and the dire socioeconomic situation of the Iranian people as exemplified by recurring strikes and unrest. There is also the matter of increased hostage-taking of dual nationals in Iran under spurious accusations.

As current US policy threatens to broadly undermine the foundations of Europe’s security and prosperity, and Iran contributes to increased instability in its immediate neighborhood, the EU needs to reassess its approach to Iran. Of importance, in the case of a Biden electoral victory, Europe will have to quickly reverse gears and switch from fighting for the survival of the JCPOA to developing concrete proposals, backed up with political will and resources, to forge a new transatlantic approach toward Iran. The window of opportunity will be short: The Europeans cannot substantively engage with the incoming Biden team during the transition period, from the election to the president’s inauguration, as this would amount to foreign interference. An unclear electoral outcome would obviously also play a factor time-wise. But even more at issue, there are not even five months between the US presidential inauguration in late January 2021 and the Iranian presidential election scheduled for mid-June 2021.

The triangular relationship of Iran, the EU, and the US over the past two decades offers a number of valuable lessons learned relevant to any discussion of a possible Democratic presidency. For the EU, looking ahead to 2021 means examining how European interests in the region can best be aligned with the new approach of a Biden White House. A Biden administration would, for the better, fundamentally change the EU’s strategic context in regard to Iran. As much as the US maximum pressure campaign is contrary to Europe’s security interests, a return to the decade of transatlantic cooperation from 2006 to 2016, both in style and substance, would be an enormous relief for the Europeans.

There would still be transatlantic divergences, no doubt. Even with a likely new agreement on the nuclear front, the US and Europe will differ on how exactly to deal with Iran’s missile program and its growing regional clout. While these threats are more pertinent for Europe because of geographical proximity, the Europeans also appear more inclined to acknowledge that Iran has its own legitimate security concerns. Given an entrenched US sanctions architecture, any future economic benefits for Iran are likely to again come from Europe, not the US. Still, the EU and US positions would be much closer to one another than over the past three and a half years, and together they hold more sway in getting the likes of China and Russia, Israel, and Saudi Arabia to enter the tent.

Lastly, a realignment with the US could help the Europeans overcome their irrelevance vis-a?-vis Iran. Because Europe still lacks political and economic independence from the US, it has had few tools available in trying to uphold the nuclear deal in the face of US pressure. Moreover, the trajectory of the past two decades has shown that only when acting in tandem can Europe and the US achieve their own, and their shared, goals. For as long as mutual enmity remains the defining feature along the Tehran–Washington axis, Europe will have to play a balancing role and approximate its own interests. Should the situation in iran fundamentally change, however, Europe and the US could become competitors for partnership with the new powers that be, even under a Biden presidency.

‘Europe’s Strategic Position Between Iran and the United States’ – Article by Cornelius Adebahr – Friedrich Ebert Stiftung / Carnegie Europe.

The Article can be downloaded here

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