by Joseph Braude*
Last week’s decision by U.S. President Donald Trump to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear deal has sparked anger in Europe, optimism in Iran’s periphery, and new questions about what new international arrangements will evolve to supplant the “JCPOA.” The Trump administration’s aspiration to impose unprecedented sanctions on Iran hinges largely on European compliance or defiance. As to the president’s hopes to encircle the regime militarily and politically within its region, success or failure rests largely with the durability of a nascent Arab-Israeli alliance against Tehran which the president seeks to foster. The Mullahs can be counted on to attempt to defeat these efforts.
EUROPEAN ANGER AND ANGST
Following the president’s dramatic announcement, National Security Adviser John Bolton said that the White House sought to pursue a new deal immediately. But the Washington Post reports that Bolton’s follow-on conversations with counterparts in the UK, Germany, and France “focused almost entirely on U.S. insistence that there would be no sanctions exemptions for European companies.” A similar message came across in a TV talk show appearance by Bolton last Sunday: He would not preclude the possibility of the U.S. imposing “secondary sanctions” on European companies that do business with Iran from which American companies are prohibited under U.S. sanctions.
The ensuing mood among Western European leaderships — particularly those of the UK, Germany, and France, who helped negotiate and signed the deal — was characterized by the Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung this week as “near-bursting with anger.” In a speech last Friday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel criticized Trump’s decision for having in her view sparked a “real crisis” in trans-Atlantic relations and any notion of an international order.
European governments have asserted their intention to remain in the nuclear deal even without the United States. On Tuesday, British, French, and German foreign ministers together with the EU foreign policy chief met with Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif. In a bid to keep Iran from abandoning the deal, they pledged continuing oil trade and investment. As the Wall Street Journal reported, EU officials have also begun to move to expand Iranian access to the European Investment Bank for loans, and may tap European companies distant from America’s economic shadow as a means to skirt U.S.-imposed secondary sanctions. The future of the Iran deal was also expected to dominate the gathering of all 28 EU member states Wednesday in the Bulgarian capital Sofia.
But while important EU political elements may be seeking ways to defy the United States and incentivize Iran to stay in the deal, important figures in the European private sector appear to have taken American warnings about secondary sanctions seriously. In an interview with CNN on Sunday, Siemens CEO Joe Kaeser said that as he understood it, if he or any other global company accepted a new business order from Iran, it could face American retaliation. In the UK, Foreign Minister Boris Johnson signaled that his country’s private sector would also need to take note of the American position. “We have to be realistic about the electrified rail, the live wire of American extraterritoriality and how [it] can serve as a deterrent to business,” he told reporters. And as an unnamed senior European diplomat told Reuters, Europe had little recourse vis a vis the U.S.: ““Let’s not fool ourselves that there are dozens of things we can do. We don’t have much to threaten the Americans.”
The U.S. Treasury Department has meanwhile proceeded to act on its mandate to impose new sanctions on Iran. New measures announced Tuesday included sanctioning Iran’s central bank governor, Valiollah Seif; assistant director of the bank’s international department, Ali Tarzali; and the leadership of the Al-Bilad Islamic Bank as “specially designated global terrorists.” All had been involved in disbursing monies to Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies, according to the Treasury Department statement.
A U.S.-ISRAELI –ARAB ALLIANCE— AND IRANIAN ATTEMPTS TO DIVIDE IT
In another of John Bolton’s talk show appearances last Sunday, he said in substance that claims the U.S. has isolated itself internationally by pulling out of the nuclear deal are unfounded. “We’re not going it alone,” he said. “We have the support of Israel. We have the support of the Arab oil-producing monarchies and many others.”
In a subsequent Wall Street Journal essay, columnist Walter Russel Meade assessed a range of White House statements as amounting to hopes for a heightened Arab-Israeli coalition against Iran: “[The White House] hopes the emerging alliance of Arabs and Israelis will give America local partners who are ready to bear many of the risks and costs of an anti-Iran policy in exchange for American backing. Israeli air power and Arab forces, combined with the intelligence networks and local relationships the new allies bring to the table, can put Iran on the defensive in Syria and elsewhere.” Meade suggested that such an alliance would serve to exert pressure on Iran which, coupled with American-led economic sanctions, would serve to weaken the regime domestically. The prospect of a joint Israeli-American aerial assault on Iranian nuclear sites could meanwhile deter the Iranian regime from restarting its nuclear program should the leadership feel tempted to do so.
But a range of Iranian statements issued in recent days appear aimed to sabotage this envisioned alliance — in particular, by driving a new wedge between Arabs and Israelis. Last Friday, for example, prominent Iranian cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami said that Iran would “raze Tel Aviv and Haifa to the ground.” The remark, echoing the violent fantasies of Nasserist and other Arab rejectionist ideologues, appeared calculated to win sympathy among those in the region who have been brainwashed by such ideologies. The same may be said of a new proclamation by the IRGC-affiliated “Justice Student Movement” offering a $100,000 reward for “anyone who destroys the building of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem.” One may expect other Iranian proxies, from Gaza to Sanaa, to make further contributions to this information campaign. It would seem that mainstream Arabic media outlets will have a role to play in either enabling the Iranian communications strategy by amplifying it, or defeating the Iranian strategy by contextualizing and refuting it.
* Middle East specialist Joseph Braude is the author of Broadcasting Change: Arabic Media as a Catalyst for Liberalism (Rowman & Littlefield). He is Advisor to the Al-Mesbar Center for Research and Studies and tweets@josephbraude.