If you heard a series of loud booms on March 22, they probably came from the exploding heads of many in the American and European political elite, following the appointment of John Bolton as White House national security adviser. With the ascension of this “hawk,” President Obama’s nuclear accord with the Islamic Republic of Iran appears to be on life support. Whether the deal survives is effectively Europe’s choice, but Mr. Trump must be prepared to accept a real fix if it’s offered.
On Jan. 12, Mr. Trump laid out three conditions for the Europeans to meet for the U.S. to remain in the nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. First, eliminate the provisions under which key nuclear restrictions expire over time. Second, constrain Tehran’s nuclear-capable long-range missile program. Finally, allow for the inspection of military sites where the regime conducted clandestine nuclear activities in the past and may be doing so now. If the Europeans do not agree to these demands by May 12, Mr. Trump will impose powerful economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
The U.S., France, the U.K. and Germany negotiated the 2015 deal, along with Iran, China and Russia. Beijing and Moscow aren’t likely to agree to a fix. But the Europeans are another story: They are massively invested in the U.S. and remain critical business partners for the Iranians. Europe is exposed to American secondary sanctions against Iran, and it has economic leverage over Tehran. Europeans also fear U.S. or Israeli military action against the Islamic Republic.
The recent trans-Atlantic talks have included how and when economic sanctions would be reimposed if Iran violates key red lines. The two sides also have been defining illegitimate commerce with the Islamic Republic. These discussions have focused on companies with ties to parties that control Iran’s economy, including the supreme leader, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the clerical establishment, as well as state and military companies.
European and American negotiators are also studying sanctions specifically targeted against the Revolutionary Guards, the praetorians of the Iranian regime. Sanctions on Hezbollah, the first and favorite foreign-born child of the Islamic revolution and Iran’s most effective Shiite militia in the Syrian civil war, are also being discussed. Trans-Atlantic measures against Iranian cyberwarfare and interference with maritime shipping remain on the table.
Until Mr. Bolton’s announcement, European negotiators were digging in on key aspects of these talks. While showing some flexibility on Iran’s long-range missiles and military-site inspections, they refused to budge in any meaningful way on sunset provisions. Germany has been particularly intransigent on this issue, as well as on Washington’s call for Europe to designate Hezbollah’s military and political wings as a terrorist organization—a longstanding and bipartisan American request. This resistance is even stranger given that Hezbollah has engaged in terrorism on European soil.
France, the U.K. and Germany also have refused to join the U.S. in designating the Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization, which the Trump administration did in October. And they have resisted deploying the most powerful sanctions proposed to target Iran’s missile program. Tehran’s short-, medium- and intermediate-range missiles threaten U.S. forces in the Middle East and America’s closest regional allies.
There is a lot riding on these talks, as Tehran is moving toward regional dominance. It has shown its willingness to deploy its deadly forces and foreign Shiite militias abroad. The Islamic Republic continues to develop easy-to-hide advanced centrifuges and long-range ballistic missiles. Its economy will be increasingly immunized against American sanctions. This should be as unacceptable to the Europeans as it is to the U.S.
France, the U.K. and Germany are now in a bind. They are terrified that concessions to Washington could prompt Iran to walk away, leading to a full-blown nuclear crisis. They watched President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry cave to Iranian nuclear blackmail, which was Tehran’s negotiation strategy in 2015. But now they face an equally daunting challenge from Mr. Trump and his soon-to-be national security adviser, who seem prepared to walk away from the nuclear deal without even trying to fix it.
For the Europeans the least awful option should be to fix the nuclear deal. At least in private, they found it to be far short of the brilliant diplomatic achievement that Mr. Kerry touts. They will have to swallow some pride, as their dislike for Mr. Trump is profound. But if they don’t act, Mr. Bolton will ensure that the president walks away in May.
Do the Europeans really want to have a nasty trans-Atlantic row over the clerical regime? They ought to want to make this too good a deal for Messrs. Trump and Bolton to turn down.
If the president rejects such an agreement, the Europeans will have negotiated in good faith. But, if they won’t go far enough to strike an accord with Washington, then they will in part own the consequences that follow.
Mark Dubowitz is the chief executive officer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow Mark on Twitter @mdubowitz.
Follow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.