European leaders faced with tense situation while they wait for Trump's decision on Iranian nuclear deal

Courtesy Photo of Heiko Maas's Twitter, Minister of Foreign Affairs BERLIN — With President Donald Trump on a renewed offensive against the Iran nuclear deal and the mid-May deadline for revisiting America's involvement in the pact approaching, European nations are cooking up contingency plans to keep the agreement afloat.

Europe has a lot riding on the success of the deal, observers said, because an American departure from the pact would likely damage Europe's economic and political relations with Tehran and increase instability in the Middle East.

"They have limited leverage and cards to play," said Ellie Geranmayeh, a senior policy fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations. "But if they resign to just watching the deal fall apart, that will burn any influence that they have with Iran to be able to moderate its reaction on the nuclear issue."

Since taking office, President Trump has repeatedly referred to the Obama-era restrictions on Iran's nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief as a "bad deal" with "terrible flaws."

Even so, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the party that oversees the deal, has said over the course of 11 separate reports since 2015 that Iran is adhering to the stipulations of the arrangement to decrease nuclear stockpiles and only enrich uranium for peaceful purposes.

That success, however, has been marred by Tehran's continued involvement in messy conflicts around the Middle East, actions seen by President Trump as a violation of the "spirit" of the agreement.

He's now set a May 12 deadline for the US and the deal's other signatories to levy tougher sanctions against Iran, or else the US will withdraw from the pact.

That threat prompted a chilling response from Iran's President Hassan Rouhani at Iran's National Nuclear Technology Day last week.

"Iran will not violate the nuclear deal, but if the United States withdraws from the deal, they will surely regret it," he said. "Our response will be stronger than what they imagine and would see that within a week."

The situation presents economic and political challenges for the deal's European partners, France, Germany and the United Kingdom.

European leaders want Trump to decide to remain in the deal before tackling other geopolitical issues that worry the White House, such as Iran's involvement in Syria and Yemen.

German parts manufacturer Daimler and French automaker Peugeot had already planned big investments in the Islamic Republic.

But, threating Europe’s big plans for rapprochement, the Trump administration and its regional allies Israel and Saudi Arabia want to scuttle the deal.

"In the wake of the nuclear deal, we've seen some glorification of Iran by the European side that's been economically and politically motivated, whereas with the US administration under Trump, we've seen a return to the demonization of Iran," said Ali Fathollah-Nejad, a visiting fellow with the Brookings Institute in Qatar. "Both narratives are extreme and inadequate. The truth lies somewhere in the middle."

American disdain for Iran is likely to reach a new tenor with the nomination of former CIA Director Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State and former Bush-era UN Ambassador John Bolton for National Security Advisor, said Geranmayeh. Both have been stark opponents of the deal since its inception.

"They take a very different position from the Europeans on Iran, which is to say you can't cut any deals and it's all about containment and confrontation," she said. "The Europeans have had a much different history with Iran and have had diplomatic relations with Iran for the past 40 years."

With economic and diplomatic interests on the line, European players are trying to develop an amicable solution with the Trump administration to halt its departure from the deal.

Though German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas called for a "firewall" to be erected between the nuclear deal and Iran's other activities as early as last week, high-level talks have been underway since January between Europe and the United States to potentially reissue some sanctions on Iran for its meddling in international affairs in return for a guarantee that the nuclear deal remain in place.

Both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron will be visiting Washington at the end of the month. The nuclear deal is expected to be a key issue on the agenda.

"The European strategy is twofold," said Fathollah-Nejad with the Brookings Institute. "One is to talk about and possibly also take action on areas of concern under Trump. Second, it's to lay the groundwork for securing European economic interests in Iran."

If European partners can't convince Trump to stay in the deal, they'll try to jockey for an arrangement that would at least allow Tehran to strike economic deals with the Europeans, the Russians and the Chinese in ways that would include Iran adhering to its nuclear obligations, said Geranmayeh with the European Council on Foreign Relations.

"In my view, that would be the best-case scenario, because you keep the deal alive and you allow the US to come back in when there's a more amicable administration, all the while keeping Iran tied to its nuclear commitments."

Even so, there's still the risk that the United States' departure from the pact could crumble nuclear controls entirely, not only raising the risk of Iranian nuclear proliferation in the region, but also targeted strikes by Israel, the United States and others on Iranian facilities.

"We'd essentially go back to the pre-2013 dynamic of very high risks of military conflict over this issue," said Geranmayeh. "And that's exactly what the Europeans have been trying to avoid for the last decade."

An alternative version of this story can be found in The Washington Times. 
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