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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 reinstatement of sanctions against Iran represents a tremendous opportunity for the Europeans to choose their policy and impose a certain 'reason' on the international scene, to free themselves in some way kind of American tutelage. Will they dare to take this step?

Donald Trump's bet

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

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

What is Trump's goal?

The precedent of North Korea serves as a model for him: by toughening the rhetoric, he believes he can make the Iranian regime bend. 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 by any state). It is about provoking Tehran to lead the Iranians to abandon the 2015 nuclear agreement (JCPOA), in a symmetrical decision. Donald Trump practices, in fact, the strategy of tension. It aims to weaken the power of the moderates, cause internal instability, followed by repression, and possibly a revolt of the population, neutralizing in a certain way Iran by its internal scene, even leading to a change of regime.

Can he win?

This decision has all the air of a bet of poker player, which can turn to the advantage of the bettor as of his loss. For the other players at the table, the Europeans in particular, this bet constitutes a real challenge: it reverses all the policy developed by the continent for years. It was the Europeans who campaigned very early on for an agreement with Iran, then convincing the Americans to participate in the deal on nuclear power and are trying to reintegrate Iran into the world 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, cowards and vain. Will he be right?

What is the risk if this bet does not succeed?

Donald Trump is giving back 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 on all the grounds where it is present (Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Palestine, etc.), if only to have points to cash in on. With this US green light, Israel may feel empowered to carry out air or cyber raids against Iranian interests in Syria or Lebanon first. This can lead to Iranian attacks in retaliation. And vice versa. This can 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 unwilling to negotiate. It must be said that he has serious reasons for this. First, it complied with the main terms of the agreement, subjecting its facilities to scrutiny by the AEIA (the International Atomic Energy Agency). The AEIA inspectors found nothing to complain about. Secondly, Donald Trump, even if he wants a new agreement, has never gone down this path. Finally, the conditions put on the table are important, and without any comparison in the Middle East. Iran would be required to make commitments that their neighbors would not keep. It 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, in the face of enemy neighboring countries (United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, etc.) or semi-friends (Iraq, Turkey, etc.), all of which are rearming , equip themselves with modern fighter planes, high-tech missiles, and even have a nuclear capacity (Israel).

... and on regional issues?

On the regional question (Yemen, for example), the subject has already been raised twice during meetings of the E4 (France, Germany, United Kingdom + Italy) with Iran. Extended to a regional issue, a solution could be envisaged. But it will take time. For Iran, to engage in this negotiation would be a formidable snub to Washington: to show 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 repeated now by many observers. This qualification is exaggerated but also unfair. Everyone tried to play their part. French, Germans, British, European diplomats and other countries sought to pressure the Americans. But there is one fact. It was ineffective. Donald Trump had decided to scrap this agreement. And getting him to change his mind would be difficult. Within the transatlantic relationship, there is always American dominance. The Europeans have undoubtedly overestimated their powers of persuasion.

Wasn't there a 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 by the 4Ms to Washington — the three main European leaders most involved (E. Macron, A. Merkel, T. May), together, accompanied by the High Representative (F. Mogherini) — might not have been enough to tip the balance. It would have had at least the merit of panache, of symbolism, of displaying European unity and 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 way, 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. It is a relatively unusual fact in European nomenclature to be pointed out. Then, even if each country has its history and its thinking, the Europeans have taken a strong position: 1. Full compliance with the agreement by Iran. 2. Their willingness to maintain the JCPOA agreement. 3. The will to leave intact the lifting of existing sanctions. 4. By leaving the door open to other areas of negotiation. It is quite courageous and new to say the least that on a highly geopolitical subject, the Europeans are displaying their opposition loud and clear 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 dared not follow the American decision, Donald Trump has in a way facilitated the solidity of this position. If some false notes were heard, in particular coming from countries close to Israel (read: US withdrawal from the agreement with Iran. Reactions fuse in Europe and around the world), the economic interests ensure the solidity of the European bloc more than the political objective.

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

In this case, it is not quite only the head of European diplomacy who speaks, 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 various holders of this position, first to Javier Solana, then to Catherine Ashton and finally Federica Mogherini. It is in a way the neutral intermediary (thehonest broker we would say in English), the diplomatic backing of the agreement. It must have a firm speech, 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 negotiation table.

A deal, what a deal

The Europeans have indicated their intention to remain in the agreement on the 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. We can not do more international as a process.

Could the United States withdraw from this agreement?

This is the principle of international law and a totally 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 coup not only against Iran but also against the international security system, the United Nations, in particular, and by the way a serious blow to the Euro-Atlantic understanding. It constitutes a violation of a United Nations Security Council resolution and a challenge to ... American allies.

Comment: The Europeans are up against the wall: follow the United States, more or less openly, or oppose it, concretely. A bit like in Iraq in 2003. Trump is opening up a tremendous opportunity for Europeans to act and exist. It's up to 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).