(Bloomberg) — President Donald Trump wants America’s closest allies to ratchet up the pressure on Iran. But this weekend in France he’ll find they’re still reluctant to join him.
Divisions over Iran will be on full display when Trump meets his European peers at a Group of Seven meeting starting Saturday in the coastal city of Biarritz. While the agenda will focus on the global economy, the most pressing security challenge will be navigating the wreckage of Trump’s decision last year to abandon the 2015 deal constraining Tehran’s nuclear program.
Even with Iran downing an American drone and being accused of a spate of tanker attacks in the Persian Gulf, European nations want to preserve the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action they say kept a rein on Iran’s nuclear program. But they’ve failed to find a way to help Tehran get the economic benefits promised under the deal. Iran is desperate to get its oil back on world markets, but that’s a non-starter for the U.S.
No compromise has emerged.
The Iran debate — and the distrust it has fueled — reflects the strains between the U.S. and Europe in the Trump era: displeasure over his maximalist approach, umbrage over his scorn for allies and, beneath it all, wariness about his intentions. In the case of Iran, allies can’t shake the suspicion that Trump, or his more hawkish advisers, want to provoke a war, no matter his insistence otherwise.
“I’ve heard several folks in Europe say, ‘Look, all of us were serving as diplomats during the Iraq War, so we’ve seen the beginnings of this movie before and we’re not going to get dragged into it again,”’ said Ellie Geranmayeh, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The Europeans will not want to side with the administration on issues that could lead to military conflict.”
The president hasn’t laid the groundwork for a productive summit. He’s arriving in France on the warpath over trade, allied contributions to NATO and a self-inflicted feud with Denmark over what appeared at first to be a joke: a suggestion the U.S. buy Greenland.
Trump’s best shot at winning some European support will come by working his personal rapport with U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The two unconventional leaders will meet for breakfast on Sunday, and Johnson may want to straddle European backing for the JCPOA with the need to keep Trump on his side for an eventual trade deal following Brexit.
A U.S. official, who asked not to be identified discussing internal deliberations, said the administration is “optimistic” that Johnson could bring the U.K. closer to the U.S. position on isolating Iran.
But that too has its dangers. One person familiar with the White House thinking on the matter, who also asked not to be identified, said the administration realizes it needs to be careful calibrating its attitude toward Johnson, who may be wary of being seen as too close to Trump ahead of a possible election later this year.
“The president wants to give Boris Johnson a big boost — he sees Johnson as Britain’s Trump, a like-minded model,” said Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “The challenge is Boris Johnson is winding up for an election and he’s got to walk a very fine line on what the domestic instinct is toward Trump.”
U.S. officials are playing down the disagreements between Washington and European capitals, arguing that all sides agree on the threat posed by Iran’s sponsorship of terrorist groups, its development of ballistic missiles and its attacks on tanker traffic around the Strait of Hormuz.
“We have had tactical disagreements but there isn’t any disagreement on end states,” Brian Hook, the State Department’s Iran envoy, told Bloomberg TV on Aug. 21. “We share the same threat assessment. The Islamic Republic of Iran is the principle driver of instability in today’s Middle East.”
Anxiety is growing in Europe about a growing list of Iranian violations of the 2015 nuclear accord, which the Islamic Republic had obeyed until Trump quit the deal. Angry that the Europeans haven’t been able to deliver economic benefits in defiance of Trump’s sanctions, Iran now has exceeded enriched-uranium limits set by the agreement and is threatening further violations if Europe doesn’t find a way around the American restrictions.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif — who was recently sanctioned by the U.S. — will be in France ahead of the summit on Friday to urge the Europeans to stick to the nuclear deal.
According to press reports and person familiar with Emmanuel Macron’s thinking, the French president is also circulating a proposal under which the U.S. would ease some restrictions on Iranian oil exports in exchange for the start of a diplomatic dialogue.
U.S. officials say Iran would need to make far bigger concessions for them to entertain such an offer. The idea flies in the face of the administration’s approach, which is to keep ramping up its “maximum pressure” campaign, under the belief that sanctions will so ruin Iran’s economy that its leaders will have no choice but to negotiate.
Two recent cases show just how different the U.S. and European approaches to Iran have become, and how wary U.S. allies are in being associated with the Trump administration’s stance.
The U.K. rebuffed a demand from the White House to keep holding an Iranian oil tanker laden with $130 million in crude allegedly bound for Syria in Gibraltar. A court in the territory deemed it could no longer keep the ship after Iran offered assurances it wouldn’t go to Syria.
Senior U.S. officials had conveyed “grave disappointment” over the decision to let the tanker go, even raising the possibility that an eventual U.S.-U.K. trade deal might be in jeopardy. The Justice Department filed a complaint aimed at blocking the ruling. But the Grace 1 — renamed the Adrian Darya 1 — left as planned.
Even more embarrassing to the U.S. has been Europe’s shunning of the plan the Americans call Project Sentinel — a bid to protect ships passing through the Strait of Hormuz. In July, the U.K. signed up but was careful to portray its participation as a European-led initiative that was getting help from — and not being led by — the U.S. France and Germany flatly refused to join, leaving the U.S. with two partners: Australia and the U.A.E.
“It’s absolutely necessary to keep the Gulf open, but the fact that they won’t do it tells you something about how toxic President Trump is in European politics,” said Nicholas Burns, a former senior State Department official and professor at the Harvard Kennedy School. “The Europeans don’t trust that Trump will keep his word that he won’t attack Iran.”