The future of the Iran deal: the new big three against Trump

The future of the Iran deal: the new big three against Trump

Bro-handshakes and close conversation have graced our newsfeeds over the past week. Whether it was French President Emanuel Macron or German Chancellor Angela Merkel side by side US President Donald Trump, what seems clear is that there is change in the air for the West’s relations with Iran.

Trump, who has made his disapproval of Barack Obama’s overtures to Iran known since his presidential campaign, is imposing his own views on his European colleagues. This disapproval has morphed into outright withdrawal from the deal, dramatically leaving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on the 8th of May. This leaves European leaders in a lurch regarding the future of Iran’s relations with the West and any future attempts to improve them. By looking at the current state of US–European relations and the historical relationship between Iran and Europe, perhaps any new deal with Iran can still wield some positive results. Britain has joined in the fray, with both Prime Minister Theresa May and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson backing the deal with Iran with fervour. Such moves indicate a divergence between Europe and the Trump administration in international affairs. With Macron, May and Merkel appearing together over the deal, they echo history as the new Big Three of global politics.

A new approach, but a step backward for Iran

A new approach to Iran, with the possibility of further sanctions, is a step backward in Iran’s foreign relations and its earlier positive image under President Hasan Rouhani. However, the detainment of British–Iranian national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and most recently a British–Iranian academic in the Islamic Republic, its international reputation is suffering.

Nonetheless, Tehran’s cooperation with the West over the nuclear deal and the leadership of Rouhani is an Iran that Europe and the US can deal with. Furthermore, Iran has honoured the deal and is above scrutiny in this department.  

Since the revolution, the Islamic Republic has enjoyed good relations with Europe, in particular France and Germany. After all, it was France that housed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini before his return to Iran in 1979 after the fall of the Shah. Furthermore, former Iranian President and moderate Mohammed Khatami lived and worked in Germany. Iran is a keen importer of German goods, while Peugeot cars are very popular amongst the Iranian population. Flights have been regular between Germany, France and Tehran. Traditionally, France and Germany have a different position in the Iranian psyche, compared to say the United States and Britain, who have historically been blamed for many of Iran’s setbacks. The 1953 coup springs to mind when a joint British–US intelligence operation toppled the popular Iranian Prime Minister Muhammad Musaddiq after the nationalizing of Iran’s oil industry. Conversely, France and Germany have a better reputation among Iranians, essentially being regarded as foreign powers with little to no imperial or political interests in Iran. And with Macron and Merkel’s recent attempts to persuade Trump in the Iran deal, this only further serves the notion that within the European mindset, Iran enjoys a particularly positive position.

Macron and Merkel’s overtures to Trump over Iran ought to be seen as a result of other factors. The Trump administration’s economic plans to install a tariff on the EU and his continued pressuring of NATO countries to spend more on defence were high on the agenda. The tariffs would in particular affect Europe’s steel and aluminium industry, worrying German business folk. Coming soon after Merkel’s re-election, her latest term is already facing a looming economic crisis. Macron is in a similar situation. Both are under immense pressure to persuade Trump against the tariff. In addition to this, the removal of the US from the Iran deal has caused newly built economic ties with Iran to collapse, further causing European enterprises to wobble.

Hanging in the balance

Currently, the juggle balls are in suspended motion. While the EU is prepared to impose punitive tariffs on US products, there does not seem to be any EU contingency since Trump has withdrawn from the Iran deal. There have been protestations and promises of honouring the deal, but thus far no punishment for the US departure. The question is then raised as to whether or not Iran can now continue without US support. Relations between Europe and the US are likely to become strained due to economic pressure. This lessens the likelihood of Europe, in particular France and Germany, following Trump’s more negative attitude to the Iranian deal. As in the past, Iran has been able to carry on a positive relationship with individual countries in the EU. However, this can be said: without US support, there is only so far that Iran’s international role can go. Its continued support of the Assad regime in Syria will probably continue, without much incentive to be a part of an international community; in other words, while relations with the US stagnates and does not build upon the advances made under Obama.

In this scenario where the Trump administration has abandoned the deal and is on the verge of re-imposing sanctions, Europe may continue to respect the deal, and in all likelihood it will. However, without any contingency plans, there will probably be no reprimand for the US for leaving. If this happens, then the US may pressure Europe in the future to impose more sanctions on the Islamic Republic. Despite the continuation of Brexit, Europe and the UK are rallying together to save the deal. While this very much continues to be a TBD situation, we may have to expect the worst: a reversal of the advances made with Iran.

With public backing of the deal, May, Macron and Merkel remain hopeful over the fate of the Iran deal. They have persuaded Trump as best as they can in this endeavour and they can only hope for the “Twitter President’s” withdrawal to somehow not completely destroy the deal.

Categories: International

About Author

Rowena Abdul Razak

Rowena Abdul Razak hold a BA (Hons) in History from the School of Oriental & African Studies, and an MA in Middle East and Mediterranean Studies from King’s College London. She is currently a DPhil candidate at the University of Oxford and has recently submitted her thesis on the British-Soviet occupation of Iran, from 1941 to 1946. She has published in academic journals and most recently, a chapter in an edited book on Russia and Iran.