A Dangerous Brinkmanship: Trump, Iran, and the European Union

May 12, 2019

A Dangerous Brinkmanship:
Trump, Iran, and the European Union


Mehran Kamrava


On the first anniversary of the United States’ withdrawal from the landmark nuclear agreement between Iran and the world powers, Tehran signaled its frustrations over the agreement’s status by suspending one of its provisions; namely, the sale of excess enriched uranium and heavy water. The landmark agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), called for an end to trade and banking sanctions on Iran in return for Tehran’s suspension of its nuclear activities. Last year, the United States unilaterally withdrew from the agreement and reimposed sanctions on Iran, vowing to also punish any country that continued trading with the Islamic Republic. 

On May 8, in a letter to the European signatories of the agreement, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned that if banking and oil sanctions on Iran are not lifted within sixty days, Iran will no longer continue to observe many of the limits imposed on it by the agreement.

President Rouhani’s frustration is not without cause, especially after the considerable political capital he and his like-minded foreign minister, Javad Zarif, spent on selling the agreement at home. For the past year, the European Union has indeed been trying to have its cake and eat it too. On the one hand, the EU has been calling on Iran to abide by the terms of the JCPOA, while on the other hand it has neither stood up to the United States nor even fulfilled its own obligations under the terms of the agreement. 

This foot-dragging seems to be partially rooted in a pervasive Iranophobia that is being constantly fed by Europe’s wealthy weapons customers in the Persian Gulf and their slick media and PR campaigns against the Islamic Republic. More importantly, the EU—and also China and Russia for that matter—are reluctant to risk further American anger over continued trade with Iran. As it is, they have enough difficulties with Donald Trump already, and do not need an additional headache over Iran.

Iran, meanwhile, has lived up to all of its obligations under the agreement, as repeatedly verified by the International Atomic Energy Agency under the JCPOA’s stringent inspection mechanisms. 

While the JCPOA has existed on paper, in practice, therefore, it has actually become an agreement of only one actor, namely Iran. The sixty-day ultimatum is an indication that Tehran’s patience is running thin. Although the EU has rejected the ultimatum, the move may finally prompt the Europeans to deliver on their end of the bargain. 

Clearly, the JCPOA’s current status quo has become untenable. Today, Iran is the only party that is living up to the terms of the agreement. After the US pulled out a year ago, the EU has done very little of what the agreement obligates it to do. 

There are two possible scenarios that may emerge out of the deadlock: either the agreement will completely collapse, with Iran formally pulling out; or the EU will finally take substantive and tangible measures to rectify what has become a farce. Over the last two years or so, the EU has been preoccupied with three primary concerns—Trump, Putin, and Brexit—and it has therefore put Iran and the JCPOA on the backburner. But if the EU continues to ignore the JCPOA, it is bound to have another serious crisis on its hands.

For his part, Donald Trump has demonstrated a predictable pattern of behavior, which is predicated on his innate distrust of and dislike for multilateralism and multilateral agreements. As a result, he has pulled the United States out of many multilateral commitments, the most notable of which are the Paris Agreement on climate change in 2016, along with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the UN Human Rights Council, and the JCPOA, all in 2018. 

In each instance, after pulling out of the agreement, Trump has engaged in highly bombastic rhetoric, condemning the terms of the previous agreement and calling for a new one. In the process, he has sought to apply what he believes is his “art of the deal” in order to get better terms for the United States. This is precisely what we are seeing today in the current trade standoff between the US and China, and what we saw in 2017 in relation to North Korea, when Trump called Kim Jong Un “little rocket man” and warned that his “fingers are on the trigger,” which is ready to be pulled at any moment. Trump’s actions against Iran are driven by the same logic. 

Trump himself does not seem to want war. Wars are, after all, bad for business. But his rhetoric is empowering the hawks around him who are hungry for regime change in Iran. The real question is whether Trump will be able to rein in the likes of John Bolton, Mike Pompeo, and Rudy Giuliani, all of whom have openly called for regime change in Tehran, or whether they will become the tail wagging the dog. 

The European Union’s silence, or, at best, its tepid expressions of concern over Trump’s bullying of Iran, amount to nothing less than complicity. But silence can no longer salvage what remains of the JCPOA. 

All brinkmanship is dangerous. But the stakes this time around are particularly high. The EU cannot afford to continue relegating itself to the sidelines. It must abide by the terms of the agreement it was once so proud of spearheading, or there will be serious consequences to its continued foot-dragging. 


Mehran Kamrava is Professor of Government and Director of the Center for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University, Qatar. His latest book, Troubled Waters: Insecurity in the Persian Gulf, was published in 2018.