REMARKS: Europe’s Push to Preserve the Iran Nuclear Deal

By Ellie Geranmayeh
September 2017 

Over the summer, there has been a re-energized push from the EU high representative for foreign affairs, Federica Mogherini, and the E3, that is, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, urging the Trump administration to stay on board with the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). This is a clear, immediate priority.

The effort comes against the backdrop of not only the two years since the deal’s signing but also the four years of gradual rapprochement between Europe and Iran since 2013 when the nuclear talks intensified under Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani. There has been a gradual normalization between the two sides from political and economic perspectives. Almost all if not all foreign ministers from the 28 members of the European Union have visited Tehran. Mogherini has been to Tehran on several occasions, taking along all of her commissioners to discuss issues from energy to economics to regional conflicts. Europeans are trying to use the JCPOA to open up space to discuss areas not only where there is common interest but also where there are real competition and differences with Iran, most notably in the Middle East where European interests are directly impacted by Iranian actions.

There is a broad convergence between the United States and key European countries regarding threat perceptions on Iran. But the real difference with the Trump administration is, first of all, on what the end goal is with respect to Iran’s behavior. Is it a change in regime behavior, or is it effecting regime change completely? What is the process by which we go about dealing with Iran? With Rouhani winning a second term, there is a government in place that has a constructive attitude toward engaging in diplomacy on areas of difference.

The region right now is very different from 2012, when the Europeans placed their harshest sanctions on Iran’s energy sector. There have been the failures of the Arab Spring, the surge of Islamic State and other extremist groups, and the increasing tension with some traditional regional allies, such as Saudi Arabia. The understanding in Europe is that although there is deep disagreement and deep distrust with Iran, it is no longer possible to ignore the country or to exclude it from discussions. This is a very stark difference from what we see coming out of the Trump administration, most notably at the Riyadh summit where President Donald Trump called on all nations of conscience to isolate Iran.

In the coming months, there is likely to be an uptick in activity by the Europeans on transatlantic coordination on Iran policy. This will include outreach on Capitol Hill and to the White House, the State Department, and the Pentagon to outline the European position, to reiterate the consequences of unraveling the deal, and, probably in private, to advise that the Europeans may look to contingency plans and fallback options if the United States unreasonably undermines the deal. There might also be much more coordination than we have seen between the Europeans, the Chinese, and the Russians.

In Washington, there is a lot of talk about co-opting or forcing Europeans to take the same position as the United States. I caution against underestimating the capacity of the Europeans to push back. This is not just about Iran policy. It is also about the idea of protecting international norms, international institutions, and the capacity of multilateral diplomacy to deliver. Given the downturn in U.S.-European relations on issues such as NATO policy and the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear deal is becoming an important parameter for Europeans on the issue of safeguarding international norms.

We should not underestimate how much of a challenge it will be for the Europeans to put up a tough position against the Trump administration on the Iran deal, but we should not underestimate their capacity to do so at a time when European leaders are being pushed to demonstrate greater responsibility on foreign policy issues.


Ellie Geranmayeh is a senior policy fellow for the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations. This piece is adapted from remarks she made during a July 28 press briefing held by the group J Street.