The Western Rift Over Iran

Thursday, March 26, 2015
Image credit: 
U.S. Embassy Vienna

During the negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program, reports have leaked indicating simmering tensions between the United States and its European partners, especially France, but England and Germany as well. Despite public insistence on the their unanimity in these protracted negotiations, significant if subtle differences in their strategies toward Iran and their long-term goals point to fault lines within the trans-Atlantic partnership. The US and Western Europe are not fully aligned with respect to their grand strategy.

This divergence alone is worthy of attention. Of particular interest however is also the surprising reversal of roles, when one recalls the sharp divisions between the US and Europe during the Iraq War and (to a somewhat lesser degree) in Afghanistan. In Iraq, the US staked out an aggressive stance sharply criticized by French and German leaders, although the UK by and large supported the US position. In Afghanistan, too, the US bore the brunt of the fighting, and European participation was often strictly limited to certain arenas.

In the Iran negotiations, however, it is France, implicitly supported by the UK and Germany, that is taking a tougher stance, advocating a longer timeline for the proposed agreement as well as stricter terms, while the Obama administration appears willing to settle for more generous terms in order to close the deal before the clock runs out. Suddenly it is the US that is from Venus and the Europeans are from Mars, to use the imagery of earlier debates.

It is difficult to determine whether this trans-Atlantic rift is significant enough to impede the American pressure for an expeditious resolution. Nor can one easily predict the overall outcome, given the ambiguities of leadership in Tehran: the ailing Khamenei might well bless an agreement that his successors would gladly circumvent, after the sanctions are gone. Nonetheless, this moment in the negotiations sheds important light on tensions within the western alliance (such as it exists, after the not always benign neglect from Washington during the past six years). The distinct concerns facing European leaders and separating them from Washington are important to recognize.

First: Geography is a non-negotiable difference between Washington and the Western European capitals. Iranian nuclear capability combined with its growing ballistic missile arsenal is a threat more immediate to Europe than to the US (as it is similarly a more urgent threat to Israel). A question reminiscent of Cold War era strategic thinking is resurfacing in Europe: if Europe were to face an attack from Iran, can the US be trusted to risk its own security? The American decision in 2009 to renege on plans to locate an anti-missile defense system in Eastern Europe makes these concerns all the more urgent. The smaller the footprint of American power in the world, the greater the likelihood that individual actors—in this case France—will look out for their own security needs.

Second: The pending deal with Iran, which ultimately will pave the way to an Iranian nuclear capacity, contributes to the on-going erosion of the non-proliferation agenda. This process has to be viewed in the context of the fate of Ukraine, a country that surrendered the nuclear weapons left on its territory after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in return for promises of territorial integrity. The breach of those promises stands as a clear lesson not lost on other states: give up on nuclear arms at your own risk. Yet if nuclear weapons proliferate—Saudi Arabia and Egypt are likely next candidates—then the relative significance of the European nuclear powers, France and England, declines. The club to which they belong may become less exclusive. France reasonably looks at the arrival of a nuclear Iran as a demotion of its own standing as an international power.

Third: At stake is not only a strategic competition between nation-states but also the threat posed by Islamist terrorism. England and France have both been victims of significant domestic terrorism, and both face the potential of ongoing radicalization and violence from fighters returning from the Middle East. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has spoken out against “Islamo-fascism” (his term), and German Chancellor Angela Merkel has called multiculturalism an “absolute failure.” In contrast, Washington has been much more cautious in its rhetoric, to the point of insisting that ISIS, the “Islamic State,” has nothing to do with Islam. These antithetical approaches reflect quite distinct domestic security challenges, as well as very different national narratives concerning immigration.

Fourth: The threat of a nuclear Iran emerging as the hegemonic power in the region has generated profound concern in the Arab world, which rebounds back to Europe, particularly with regard to the long-standing French ambition to maintain and expand Arab partnerships. France has considerable economic ties to Arab countries and is therefore especially sensitive to their security concerns. Lifting sanctions against Iran could disrupt the benefits of these Franco-Arab relations.

A missing piece in this calculation is Germany, with deep business ties to Iran: German industry is very eager to expand those lucrative connections. The German government therefore finds itself in a difficult position, caught between those domestic interests hoping to appease the Iranian leadership and its own commitment to a unified European foreign policy and, especially, to the particular importance of Franco-German relations, the real foundation of the European Union. Merkel is too much the Europeanist to damage ties to Paris in order to score points in Tehran. It is also worth remembering that Merkel was able to stare down German business interests with regard to the Russia sanctions, and she may yet be able to do the same with regard to Iran.

Fifth: European self-interest—both in the sense of the needs of the European Union as a whole and the national interests of the major European nation-states—emerges as a significant factor in international affairs, the more Washington pursues policies designed to reduce American leadership around the world. During the 2008 presidential campaign, candidate Obama delivered an address in Berlin before an enormous crowd, indicative of the extensive political capital President Obama could have utilized during his administration.  Unfortunately that opportunity was not seized.

Instead American policy has largely involved withdrawals—from the Middle East—and relinquishing of leadership elsewhere. “Isolationism” may not be the right designation, but the US is perceived internationally as pulling back from foreign entanglements, a stance that accurately reflects the program of the ascendant anti-imperialist wing of the Democratic Party. As the US retrenches, it is hardly surprising that our allies and erstwhile allies begin to act independently in the pursuit of their own interests: no wonder France appears to balk at dictates from Washington.

Sixth: Domestic politics are pushing in different directions on both sides of the Atlantic. The Obama administration wants very much to demonstrate an accomplishment in order to secure a presidential legacy and (to the extent that this still matters in the White House) to provide Democratic candidates with an achievement to point to. Hence the intense pressure to close the deal, any deal, as the next election cycle kicks into gear. In contrast, in Europe, no leader is under any time pressure to sign anytime soon. Moreover any appearance of knuckling under to demands from Washington would only prove to be a liability for European politicians.

In France, the mere suggestion of subordinating national concerns to Washington’s policies would fan the flames of the National Front and Marine Le Pen’s pending challenge to President Hollande; in England it would amplify the euroskeptics in UKIP and their threat to Prime Minister David Cameron; and in Germany it could even tarnish Chancellor Merkel’s heretofore untouchable record, as critics on the left and the right wait in the wings for the 2017 elections. In other words, European politicians viewed as cooperating excessively with Washington will, as always, be vulnerable to attacks from anti-American voices at both ends of the political spectrum.

However the Iranian negotiations conclude—or if they conclude at all—they have now turned into a touchstone to the complexities of trans-Atlantic relations, which will continue to define relations between the US and its traditional allies in Europe. The past six years have witnessed a relative disintegration of those ties, as evidenced most recently by President Obama’s absence from the gathering in Paris of world leaders protesting the Charlie Hebdo killings. Expect foreign policy to become a controversial topic in the next election: after Obama, will the US continue down the path of disengagement or will there be an effort to reassert American leadership by rebuilding the western alliance that depends centrally on trans-Atlantic ties?