Energy Transition

Why Europe backs the US on Iran

Carl Bildt
Co-Chair, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)
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Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu seems close to ordering a general mobilization of his country’s military, and Republicans in the United States are preparing for a ferocious battle with President Barack Obama’s administration, in the wake of the framework nuclear agreement with Iran. And yet the framework deal has been almost universally welcomed in Europe. What accounts for this disconnect within the West over a key regional and global threat?

Several factors are at work. One, certainly, is that Europe – or, more precisely, the United Kingdom, Germany, and France – has been engaged in the talks with Iran for more than a decade. Even as former President George W. Bush branded Iran a part of an “axis of evil,” the key European Union members insisted that diplomacy was better than war.

And, step by step, the European approach has been vindicated. Critical to that outcome, of course, was the US intelligence community’s reports that all the evidence pointed to Iran having long ago – in 2003 – abandoned concrete plans to develop a nuclear weapon.

It is easy to see why the Iranians would have done so. So long as Saddam Hussein, who had launched a brutal eight-year war against Iran in the 1980s, and whom influential Westerners openly accused of seeking to acquire nuclear weapons, remained in power, the Iranian government’s plan to develop nuclear weapons followed a certain realist logic. Once the US military ousted Saddam’s regime in 2003, Iran’s most acute security threat vanished.

150407-iran nuclear deal reuters graphic

Moreover, there has long been a tactical difference between US and European policies toward Iran’s nuclear program. At times, the US seemingly sought to eradicate any knowledge of nuclear technology from a country of which it is deeply suspicious, whereas the European approach was to seek reliable assurances that Iran would never develop a nuclear weapon. At the end of the day, the US recognized that any realistic policy needed European support, while Europeans saw preventing a rush to war by the US or Israel as a central policy objective.

It should also be said that Europeans have never been overly impressed with America’s hardline approach toward that other charter member of the axis of evil, North Korea, and its nuclear ambitions. Refusing to negotiate with the North Korean regime, and imposing the most stringent sanctions on it, has not stopped it from either acquiring nuclear weapons or accelerating its development of both nuclear and missile technologies.

Among the significant issues that need to be sorted out before the end-of-June deadline for reaching a final deal with Iran is to agree on the details of the gradual suspension, and eventual repeal, of economic and diplomatic sanctions against the country. While this will be the subject of a fierce political battle in the US, it is likely that the European Union will be far more willing to move ahead.

Indeed, Europe has sound reasons to lift the restrictions on Iranian oil exports. Additional supplies of oil to global markets will keep prices down or depress them further. Apart from the economic gain for Europe’s economies, low oil prices yield important strategic benefits – particularly with respect to constraining Russian President Vladimir Putin’s revisionist ambitions in Ukraine and elsewhere.

Needless to say, the US and Europe should stick to a common approach on the sanctions issue. But were a more militant policy approach by the Republican-controlled US Congress to prevail, America might well find that it loses the ally that makes the key difference for the sanctions’ success. Indeed, on this issue, the US might rapidly find itself isolated from all other global actors.

Europe is certainly not naive about the nature of the Iranian regime. France, with its historically strong convictions on issues concerning nuclear proliferation, has taken a particularly firm stance during the talks. But Europe is also acutely aware of the consequences of the rapid increase in violent conflict and suffering in its immediate neighborhood; indeed, Europeans see those consequences daily in the flood of refugees trying to reach its shores. Another war in the Middle East is clearly not in its interest.

Finally, Israel is a key factor underlying the differences between the US and Europe when it comes to Iran. Though Netanyahu’s shrill words still have an attentive audience in the US, most of Europe regards his position as being only a little short of ridiculous.

Thus, it is nearly certain that, assuming a final agreement with Iran is reached in June, Europe’s backing for it will be unanimous – or close to it – and that it will be eager to support Obama in his battle with opponents of the deal at home. The framework agreement has vindicated Europe’s approach to resolving the nuclear dispute. The West has every reason to maintain that approach in the months ahead.

This article is published in collaboration with Project Syndicate. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Carl Bildt is a renowned international diplomat, and served as Sweden’s foreign minister from 2006 to October 2014, and Prime Minister from 1991 to 1994, when he negotiated Sweden’s EU accession.

Image: The flag of Iran at negotiations. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl
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