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The Trump Effect on EU-Iran Relations

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The Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament has called today to uphold the nuclear agreement between Iran and the UN Security Council members plus Germany as “an important success of international and notably EU diplomacy.” It also called on the EU to “continue applying pressure on the US to fully deliver on the practical implementation” of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The relevant clause was tabled by the foreign affairs spokesperson of the Green group, German lawmaker Barbara Lochbihler, to the EP recommendation to the Council of the EU on the bloc’s priorities for the 72nd session of the UN General Assembly. It was backed, apart from the Greens, by the Social Democrats, liberals, and the far left. This coalition prevailed against the opposition of the conservatives, who agreed only to keep the part of the amendment that called to uphold the JCPOA, but voted against the second part related to the pressure on Washington.

Many American experts warned President Trump that his relentless hostility to Iran and the JCPOA, despite Iran’s certified compliance with the agreement, is likely to isolate Washington more than Tehran. In particular, they pointed to the commitment to the deal by the European partners of the United States, as long as Iran continues to abide by it, as has been the case. Tuesday’s vote in the EP’s Foreign Affairs committee proved Trump’s critics right. And it can be only a beginning.

Although the adopted language still has to survive the full floor debate and vote—and, in any case, is not binding for the EU’s executive and the member states—sends a number of strong political signals after Trump’s visits to the Middle East and Europe.

First, the EP puts the onus of the implementation of the JCPOA on the US, not Iran. That an EU body should reckon that yesterday’s “rogue state” is more reliable in upholding the international rule of law than a longstanding trans-Atlantic ally is in itself an extraordinary indictment of Trump’s foreign policy.

Second, by refusing to follow the US in taking a pro-Saudi, anti-Iranian side in Middle Eastern geopolitical power struggles, the EU shows its strategic autonomy and offers an alternative vision for the region: one where legitimate interests of all sides should be accommodated in a system of collective security.

Trump’s bizarre embrace of the Saudi regime raised not a few eyebrows in Europe. The EP has recently and repeatedly criticized Saudi Arabia for human rights abuses, the war in Yemen and the promotionof the ultra-conservative Wahhabi creed, the extreme interpretation of which provides ideological ammunition to groups like the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. Although the Islamic Republic of Iran is by no means an exemplar of respect for human rights, the sight of Iranians voting in elections, however imperfect, and handing a decisive victory to a moderate candidate advocating openness towards the West, has generated considerable good will in Europe. The vote in the EP’s committee thus becomes also a way to repudiate Trump’s demonization of Iran.

Third, Trump’s gratuitous attempts to offend the Europeans by scolding them on defense spending, insulting Germans, shoving the prime minister of an allied state, and refusing to unambiguously commit the US to the principle of collective defense enshrined in Article 5 of NATO prompted an unprecedentedly bold rebuke from Europe’s most powerful politician: German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Her talk of the need for the Europeans, in the wake of the Brexit vote and Trump’s presidential win, to take their defense seriously is not merely an attempt to score political points before the German elections later this year. It’s a sober warning about the damage done to trans-Atlantic relations by Trump and the need for the EU to increase its self-reliance in security matters.

In this context, it becomes easier for the EU to distance itself from Trump’s extreme anti-Iranian position. Trump’s dismissive attitude to the European allies has no doubt swayed some Euro MPs to vote the way they did when in other circumstances they would probably not endorse the language on “pressure.” Such language is usually reserved for countries like Russia or Iran, but not the US.

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament. 

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