The Spectre of Trump Haunts Europe’s Bid to Keep Iran Deal Intact
Iranian oil sales to Europe have reached 700,000 barrels a day, nearly one-third of the Islamic Republic’s overall crude exports and more than levels before the European Union and the United States tightened financial and energy sanctions in 2012, when Europe began a boycott of Iranian oil.
EU coordination with the United States extended from these sanctions to negotiating the 2015 Iranian nuclear agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Earlier, without US support, Europe had failed in 2003-05 to reach an agreement with Iran limiting its atomic programme.
EU-US coordination is now again in doubt. US President Donald Trump’s notion of “making America great” and his Twitter diplomacy eschew multilateralism and have sent a chill through Europe, where institutions such as the European Union and NATO have been decades in the making.
Around the world, some leaders, including Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, seek a go-it-alone relationship with Trump.
More than most countries, Germany has stood firm for multilateralism. Chancellor Angela Merkel is cautious of Trump but has sent Christoph Heusgen, her long-trusted adviser, and Peter Wittig, Germany’s US ambassador, to look into the new US president’s intentions with meetings in New York and Washington.
Paul von Maltzahn, a vastly experienced diplomat who is a former German ambassador to Egypt, Iran, Indonesia and Iraq, told The Arab Weekly in an interview: “The first contacts were laid rather late. We’re awaiting more detail, making the most of what we know.”
Berlin is concerned about Trump’s attitude towards NATO and the JCPOA, which during the presidential election campaign he denounced as “the worst deal ever negotiated”.
Von Maltzahn stressed the multilateral nature of the JCPOA, signed by Iran and six world powers — the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany.
“Up to now,” said von Maltzahn, “Trump has shown he can repudiate earlier positions, but on Iran it seems he has to do something new, and (in signalling a tougher approach) he’s in line with the majority of the Republican Party. He can, of course, increase sanctions (unilaterally).”
Von Maltzahn said he has no doubt this would endanger the nuclear agreement, with Iranian President Hassan Rohani already “under fire” at home and facing re-election in May. He stressed, however, that the European signatories, including Germany, would encourage Tehran to stay within the JCPOA, come what may.
“This is definite,” he said. “All of us are convinced it’s the best deal we could get. It took a long time and was possible because the Obama administration saw the benefit of a deal.”
The former ambassador said he was sceptical of the proposal kicking around Washington to somehow broaden the JCPOA to include issues such as Iran’s regional role or its human rights record.
“Germany would like progress on human rights,” he said, “but let’s remember that disentangling Iran’s nuclear programme from other matters made the agreement possible.”
Neither is it clear to von Maltzahn — as is also floated in Washington — how Trump might use a new relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin to squeeze Iran or even to squeeze Europe.
“Europe’s first priority is NATO,” said von Maltzahn. “On this we’re all united and we can only lose if the US attitude changes.
“What can the Americans offer Putin? They can acquiesce with the situation in Ukraine. But Iran is different: In the Middle East, Putin has his foot in front.
“For world opinion, he’s acted while the Americans have remained on the sidelines,”von Maltzahn said. “It’s a prestige game for Putin, and he’s back in world politics.”
Von Maltzahn admitted that Berlin was puzzled by Trump. “He stresses economic issues and, when you consider what he’s been saying about China, you wonder if commercial aspects dominate his political thinking.
“What makes me wary are these signs that he’s unwilling to take advice from people with whom he’s not already struck up a personal relationship.”
As Iran’s oil again flows to Europe, and with Total of France and Anglo-Dutch Shell signing agreements to develop Iranian oil and gas fields, Europe’s economic interests are growing in Iran.
While Germany is ill disposed by history to welcome a world where each country grabs what it can, Europe hardly seems a bastion of stability.
Britain has barely begun planning for Brexit, France has a presidential election in April and much of Eastern Europe — including Poland’s right-wing nationalist government — is alarmed by Trump’s praise of Putin.
Germany faces a general election in the autumn with the far-right Alternative for Germany party rising in the polls.
“We’re all taken up with our own problems,” said von Maltzahn.
“Chancellor Merkel is looking over her shoulder, given the lack of enthusiasm for refugee policies, and we’ll soon have a new Foreign minister (Frank-Walter Steinmeier stands down to become president in February).
“On Iran and other matters, it’s hard to see major new steps, other than on the tactical level.”
Gareth Smyth has covered Middle Eastern affairs for 20 years and was chief correspondent for The Financial Times in Iran.
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