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Donald Trump's decision on Iran, a real gamble. A challenge to Europeans too!

(B2) Donald Trump's announcement of a reestablishment of sanctions against Iran represents a tremendous opportunity for Europeans to choose their policy and impose a certain 'reason' on the international scene, to free themselves in some way sort of American supervision. Will they dare to take this step?

Donald Trump's bet

Is there a national security risk for the USA as Donald Trump says?

Unless we return to the situation of American hostages in Tehran in the 1980s, the risk is (very) measured, in any case much less than that which Europeans, close to Iran, can suffer, or are already indirectly suffering. via the consequences of its offensive in Syria alongside the Bashar regime. On the other hand, the Iranians are objective allies in the fight against the Islamic State.

What is Trump's objective?

The precedent of North Korea serves as a model: by toughening the discourse, he believes he can bend the Iranian regime. The objective is not really to force the Iranians to negotiate a new agreement. The conditions set by the White House are such that they are unacceptable to Iran (and more generally to any state). It is about provoking Tehran to lead the Iranians to abandon the 2015 nuclear agreement (JCPOA), in a symmetrical decision. Donald Trump is, in fact, practicing the strategy of tension. It aims to weaken the power of moderates, cause internal instability, followed by repression, and possibly a revolt of the population, in a way neutralizing Iran through its internal scene, or even leading to a change of regime.

Can he win?

This decision has all the appearance of a poker player's bet, which can turn out to be to the advantage of the bettor or to his loss. For the other players at the table, the Europeans in particular, this bet constitutes a real challenge: it reverses all the policies developed by the continent for years. It was the Europeans who campaigned very early for an agreement with Iran, convincing the Americans to participate in the deal on nuclear power and are trying to reinsert Iran into the global game. This decision also constitutes a double risk both because Iran is a neighbor and because it could open a serious crisis, in the Euro-Atlantic camp like the Iraqi crisis in 2003, and between Europeans themselves. same. Donald Trump downplays this last factor, considering Europeans as lackeys, cowardly and vain. Will he be right?

What is the risk if this bet does not succeed?

Donald Trump gives back control to Russia and China in the region. It weakens the American position, that of its allies and strengthens the position of Iran. Tehran could be tempted to harden its position in all the areas where it is present (Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Palestine, etc.), if only to have points to monetize. With this American green light, Israel can feel empowered to carry out air or cyber raids against Iranian interests in Syria or Lebanon first of all. Which could lead to Iranian attacks in retaliation. And vice versa. This could lead, in the worst scenario, to a new armed confrontation.

Towards a new agreement?

Can the United States negotiate a new agreement?

To negotiate, it takes two. Iran has already indicated that it is not willing to negotiate. It must be said that he has serious reasons for this. First, it complied with the main conditions of the agreement, subjecting its facilities to control by the IAEA (the International Atomic Energy Agency). The AEIA inspectors found nothing to complain about. Second, Donald Trump, even if he wants a new agreement, has at no time committed to this path. Finally, the conditions put on the table are important, and without any comparison in the Middle East. We would demand commitments from Iran that would not be met by their neighbors. This is logically difficult to accept.

The Europeans also mention the idea of ​​a broader agreement. Have we started to negotiate?

Not really. On the issue of ballistic missiles, it's a 'no go'. For Tehran, it is out of the question to negotiate on its defense instruments, facing enemy neighboring countries (United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, etc.) or semi-friendly countries (Iraq, Turkey, etc.) which are all rearming and equipping themselves. modern fighter aircraft, high-tech missiles, and even have a nuclear capability (Israel).

…and on regional issues?

On the regional issue (Yemen, for example), the subject has already been raised twice during E4 meetings (France, Germany, United Kingdom + Italy) with Iran. Expanded to a regional issue, a solution could be envisaged. But it will take time. For Iran, engaging in this negotiation would be a formidable snub to Washington: showing that it is ready for negotiations.

A challenge to Europeans

Can we say that this American withdrawal is a European failure?

This is the word now repeated by many observers. This characterization is exaggerated but also unfair. Everyone tried to play their part. French, German, British, European diplomats and other countries sought to put pressure on the Americans. But there is a fact. This was ineffective. Donald Trump had decided to scrap this agreement. And changing his mind would be difficult. Within the transatlantic relationship, there is still American domination. The Europeans have undoubtedly overestimated their power of persuasion.

Was there no way to do more?

At the diplomatic level, the maximum has undoubtedly been done. At the political level, we can regret that there was not more symbolism. A visit of the 4M to Washington - the three main European leaders most involved (E. Macron, A. Merkel, T. May), together, accompanied by the High Representative (F. Mogherini) - would perhaps not have been enough to tip the balance. It would have at least had the merit of panache, of symbolism, of displaying unity and European weight, rather than having a succession of visits from national leaders (Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel then Boris Johnson) who seemed rather come to Canossa. Europeans do not think enough about the power of symbols in international politics.

Did the Europeans react then?

Yes. In an extraordinarily coordinated manner, as soon as Trump's decision was known, there was a European reaction. We did not have to wait long hours or several days (as sometimes) to have a common position. This is a relatively unusual fact in European nomenclature to be emphasized. Then, even if each country has its history and its reflection, the Europeans have taken a strong position: 1. Full compliance with the agreement by Iran. 2. Their desire to maintain the JCPOA agreement. 3. The desire to leave the lifting of existing sanctions intact. 4. By leaving the door open to other areas of negotiation. It is quite courageous and at least new that on a highly geopolitical subject, Europeans are loudly and clearly displaying their opposition to an American decision on a sensitive area in the world.

Can this unity be maintained?

This is one of the challenges. By threatening the Europeans with extra-territorial sanctions if they decided not to follow the American decision, Donald Trump has in a certain way facilitated the solidity of this position. If a few false notes were heard, particularly from countries close to Israel (read: US withdrawal from the agreement with Iran. Reactions fuse in Europe and around the world), economic interests ensure the solidity of the European bloc more than the political objective.

The head of European diplomacy Federica Mogherini seems withdrawn from the idea (defended in particular by France) of a new agreement?

In this matter, it is not quite just the head of European diplomacy who is speaking, but also the chief negotiator of the agreement. A role that the partners of the agreement (the five countries of the United Nations Security Council + Germany and Iran) wanted to entrust from the start to the different holders of this position, first to Javier Solana, then to Catherine Ashton and finally Federica Mogherini. It is in a certain way the neutral intermediary (thehonest broker one would say in English), the diplomatic guarantee of the agreement. She must have a firm message, for the European aspect, but also for the other signatories of the agreement (Russian and Chinese), and the Iranian side, just like the Americans whom the Europeans hope, one day, to bring back to the negotiation table.

A deal, what a deal

The Europeans have indicated their intention to remain in the agreement on Iranian nuclear. Is it truly international?

In the classic and formal sense of an international agreement open to all parties, it is indeed not an international agreement. But it is really a multinational agreement, negotiated by seven: Iran on one side, the members of the United Nations Security Council, on the other, with Germany in addition (the P5+1 in international language , the E3+3 in European language). An agreement endorsed by the United Nations Security Council in a resolution adopted unanimously. The process couldn't be more international.

Could the United States withdraw from this agreement?

This is the principle of international law and a completely unilateral decision. Nothing authorizes it (in the text of the JCPOA), nothing prohibits it either. In this case, the symbolism is extraordinarily political. The American decision is a blow not only against Iran but also against the international security system, the United Nations, in particular, and in passing a serious blow to the Euro-Atlantic understanding. It constitutes a violation of a United Nations Security Council resolution and a challenge to… the Americans’ allies.

Comment: Europeans are faced with a corner: follow the United States, more or less openly, or oppose it, concretely. A bit like in Iraq in 2003. Trump opens up a tremendous opportunity for Europeans to act and exist. It's up to the Europeans to seize it

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).