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Trump's Iran stance worries Europe

September 7, 2017

Under Donald Trump, Washington is distancing itself from the Iran nuclear deal. The US president insists Tehran has been violating the agreement, without citing concrete proof. For Europe, that's a risky move.

Grafitti in Teheran showing Statue of Liberty with a skull as head
Image: picture alliance/dpa/A. Taherkenareh

US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley has been deliberately ambiguous with regard to the Iran nuclear deal. No, she is not in favor of casting doubt on the legal basis of the agreement. But, as she told an audience at the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank, one thing must be clear: Should Donald Trump decide to do so, then he would have firm ground to stand on.

Haley did not elaborate further on Trump's reasons for backing away from what, in her view, is a flawed deal. But she left little doubt that she believes it is time to re-examine the agreement. "We should at no time be beholden to any agreement and sacrifice the security of the United States to say that we'll do it," Haley said.

Warning against a self-created crisis

Haley's statements contradict the information provided by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Last week, it declared that Iran was sticking to the terms of the deal, and that Tehran had not engaged in any uranium enrichment beyond the permitted levels.

US UN ambassador Nikki Haley
Haley said that if Trump backs out of the Iran deal, he would have good reason to do soImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/B. Matthews

Her comments were prompted by the upcoming October deadline for the US Senate to certify Iran's compliance. The president's skeptical stance on the Iran deal has long been a source of concern in Washington circles. "You can only tear up the agreement one time," said Republican Senator Bob Corker, warning that if it were to happen, the US would generate a self-created crisis. According to a report by The Washington Post newspaper, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis have advised the president to leave the deal in place.

'A bad idea'

Withdrawing from the deal would be "a bad idea," according Los Angeles Times columnist Doyle McManus. However, he doesn't have much hope that Trump will continue to certify the agreement.

"Here's an international crisis you can, unusually, put on your calendar ahead of time," McManus wrote. Describing Trump's frustration that he couldn't just walk away from the deal, McManus says the president instructed his staff to come up with the excuses he needs to decertify. And he described that as an "Alice-in-Wonderland approach to foreign policy: Verdict first, evidence later."

Still, Trump has not had too much trouble finding influential people to support his position. "I don't think we get much benefit from the deal," said Republican Senator Tom Cotton, "so it collapsing doesn't trouble me all that much."

Others take a similar view but are pursuing a different strategy, which would be to decertify Iran while leaving the deal in place. According to Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, simply pulling out of the deal "would allow Iran to play the aggrieved victim and alienate the Europeans."

Iran nuclear deal talks in Vienna
The US helped negotiate the Iran nuclear deal in 2015Image: Mehr

It's true that the Europeans would be less than happy if Trump were to present them with a fait accompli in this highly volatile issue. That's why Dubowitz believes in this third way, where decertification could build a sort of "rap sheet" against any of Iran's small violations of the deal. On this basis, it would become increasingly difficult for Iran to be able to stick to the agreement.

Diverging interests

Europe has no interest in any further upheaval in the Middle East. Cancellation of the nuclear deal could have the undesired effect of reviving other armament plans, including nuclear arms. It would also fan the flames of violence, and with it, the number of refugees. Without the nuclear deal, Iran would have no reason to restrain itself politically, and could likely embark on an even more aggressive course.

And were Iran to resume its nuclear program, this could awaken other regional states' interest in pursuing nuclear weapons. It would take years to put an end to such an arms race, if indeed that were even possible. And that means that in view of the Iran nuclear deal, American and European interests are clearly diverging.

Infografik Iran's nuclear program
Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East