US President Donald Trump’s expected withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal was followed by a hard message for China, Russia and the European Union concerning sanctions against countries that continue their economic relations with Iran. But by obstructing European business ties with Iran, the White House is taking great risks of putting its trans-Atlantic alliances in danger.
Furthermore, in a recent tweet, the newly appointed US ambassador to Germany has told German companies to immediately end their operations in Iran. This was followed promptly by the response of the German economy minister, Peter Altmaier, indicating that his government was “ready to talk to all the companies concerned about what we can do to minimise the negative consequences” of the US’s exit from the agreement.
The EU and Iran have now entered a new phase in talks over how to develop special financial channels which can protect the Iranian economy from a sudden decline without obstructing European interests in Iran. However, this would require guarantees against the US’s enforcement of secondary sanctions, so that European companies continue doing business in Iran without facing US penalties.
Finding practical solutions will take time and Europe needs to put in place legal mechanisms that could help reduce the impact of US secondary sanctions. To do this, Europe needs to show not only its regulations but also its teeth to the Trump administration. A few days ago, France’s economy minister, Bruno Le Maire, urged European nations to defend the “economic sovereignty” of the EU against American sanctions targeting foreign companies that trade with Iran. It is, therefore, a question of reviving the “blocking regulation”, which reflects the opinion that the US is illegitimately forcing Europe to accept a foreign policy decision at odds with its own security and economic interests.
The European decision to put together a nine-point plan with Iran, intended to help Iran maintain its ability to sell oil and gas and to protect European companies, comes at a time when the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has accused Valiollah Seif, the governor of the Central Bank of Iran of being a “global terrorist” and moving “millions of dollars on behalf of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force to Hezbollah”.
The attack against Iran’s most crucial financial institution represents an escalation in the economic warfare of the White House. However, this move by Trump and his collaborators to instigate instability in Iran might end with the ascendency of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), followed by the high risk of a regional conflict with Saudi Arabia and Israel. Considering the deep sectarian fault lines which exist between Iran and Saudi Arabia, any hasty moves from the Iranian military or paramilitary against Saudi interests in the Persian Gulf could end up in a new escalation of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry. Making the Islamic Republic of Iran the source of all the region’s ills plays well into the Saudi and Israeli official discourses. This narrative has also found its way into mainstream media in the US.
That said, pursuing regime change in Iran is a big gamble for Trump and a risky affair for European and Middle Eastern countries. First and foremost, this is because the Islamic regime will fight back hard for survival. Second, in order to maintain its revolutionary image among its regional supporters, the IRGC will not withdraw from Syria, even at the cost of a confrontation with Israel. Third, the US’s withdrawal from the Iran deal has not only upset Washington’s European allies, but it has also cast uncertainty over global oil supplies and raised the risk of conflict in the Middle East.
Recently, the French President Emmanuel Macron told Trump in a telephone call that he was worried about stability in the Middle East. This comes after Israel and Iran engaged last week in an extensive military exchange in the Golan heights. Israeli defence minister Avigdor Lieberman later told a conference in the town of Herzliya that the Israeli defence forces had “hit almost all of the Iranian infrastructure in Syria”. But he added: “They must remember that if it rains here in Israel, it will pour there. I hope that we have finished this chapter and that everyone got the message.” It is difficult to say if the Iranians really got the message.
We should not forget that unlike the early years of the Iranian revolution, the Islamic regime is not trying to advance the cause of the Palestinians against the state of Israel. As such, Iran’s military actions in Syria are purely for security reasons. Should the Iranian regime have credible assurances from the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel about its survival, it might agree to put an end to its asymmetric warfare through its proxies in Yemen, Lebanon and Syria. But neither Trump nor its allies in the Middle East seem interested in pursuing those avenues of entente. For them, Iranian military ventures in the region and its antagonism to the state of Israel are good reasons to take steps to prepare a regime change in Iran. In such a battle of hawks, there is no place for doves.