Skip to main content
Time to Make Up After Fighting Over Iran
G7 leaders at the recent summit in Canada (China News Service/VCG via Getty Images)
(Photo credit: China News Service/VCG via Getty Images)

Time to Make Up After Fighting Over Iran

Michael Doran & Peter Rough

When President Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, he began the process of reimposing sanctions—including drastic penalties for European companies doing business in Iran. That enraged America’s European allies. “With friends like Trump, who needs enemies?” said Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, at a press conference after the announcement.

Mr. Trump’s decision to reimpose sanctions was based on a sound reading of vital American and Western security interests. But something basic has been absent from his approach—namely, old-fashioned diplomacy based on a sustained campaign of persuasion. After the president further rankled his European counterparts this month discussing trade at the Group of 7 summit, the need for such a campaign is greater than ever. The administration ought to switch tacks to soothe European anger and keep the trans-Atlantic alliance from fracturing further.

The new Iran policy is, bluntly, one of coercion. Mr. Trump presents companies a harsh choice: You can do business with the U.S., or you can do business with Iran. Coercion works. Within days, major companies like Boeing , Siemens , Total and Lukoil announced they were abandoning the Iranian market. But coercion also generates resentment. European businesses may be dancing to the American tune, but they and their political representatives feel that Mr. Trump is shooting at their feet.

Europe is deluded to interpret the withdrawal as a fit of Trumpian caprice. There were good arguments for mending rather than ending the deal, but the Europeans failed to consider seriously the strengthened terms the Trump administration proposed, including more-thorough nuclear-site inspections and an end to the sunset clauses.

Still, the U.S. hasn’t done enough to convince Europe of the deal’s flaws. It has been more than a decade since senior American officials traveled to Europe with the explicit purpose of explaining the threat Iran poses and the necessity of extraordinary Western actions to counter it. Whereas America had a vigorous debate around the Iran deal, European elites sanctified it, and the Obama administration praised them for it.

Over the past year, the Trump administration’s message about the deal has been less than consistent. Mr. Trump himself has consistently labeled it “terrible,” “horrible,” and “one-sided.” But when Sen. Angus King asked Defense Secretary Jim Mattis last fall if he believed the agreement was in the national interest, Mr. Mattis replied: “Yes, senator, I do.”

The same month, then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson devised a diplomatic process to fix rather than nix the deal. “We’re going to stay in,” he told CNN. “We’re going to work with our European partners.” As the president later explained, differences over the Iran deal factored into his decision to fire Mr. Tillerson : “I wanted to either break it or do something. He felt a little differently,” Mr. Trump said. “So we were not really thinking the same.”

It is hard to blame the Europeans for believing Messrs. Mattis and Tillerson might succeed in saving the deal. Their current complaint, that Mr. Trump turned over the card table and pulled out his revolver, is self-serving but understandable.

Mr. Trump should now make it an urgent priority to dispel this image. Specifically, he should unite his top echelon of officials—Mr. Mattis, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Vice President Mike Pence, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Energy Secretary Rick Perry —in a diplomatic offensive to defend the U.S. position to their European counterparts.

The challenge is particularly acute in Germany, Europe’s biggest economic power. To German leaders, Mr. Trump’s decisions to reimpose sanctions on Iran and to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum appear to be two prongs of a single policy: America first. The U.S., Germans believe, has developed an exasperating habit of making unilateral decisions that have a disproportionate impact on European businesses.

The Trump administration should remind Berlin that exiting the Iran deal was no rogue action, as it reconciled U.S. policy with the wishes of much of the American public. President Obama never built strong support for the deal in Congress or with voters.

In addition to blasting the supposed brazenness of the U.S. withdrawal, European leaders allege that it violated international law, as they claim Iran had complied with its terms. That charge is specious, and the U.S. should refute it vigorously. Israel’s daring capture in January of information on Iran’s nuclear program confirmed that Tehran had violated the nuclear deal and the international nonproliferation treaty. The captured information proves that Iran never offered a full accounting of the past military dimensions of its nuclear program.

Instead of launching a public diplomacy campaign to inform Europeans of these revelations, however, U.S. and Israeli officials allowed critics to mobilize and dismiss the Israeli discoveries as inconsequential. Mr. Perry should respond now by launching a road show to highlight Iran’s alarming deceptions.

Meantime, European businesses need a refresher course on the risks of doing business with Iran. The Islamic Republic is well-practiced at using shell companies, sometimes with German fronts, to mask its illicit activities and entice European suppliers. Mr. Mnuchin should travel to Europe to describe Iran’s continuous drive to corrupt the global financial system.

The U.S. must also remind the Europeans that if economic sanctions and diplomacy don’t curb Iran’s behavior, the only alternative is military action. That cannot be Europe’s preference—and no one can make that argument more persuasively than Mr. Mattis, whom some have taken to calling “Moderate Dog.”

Even a successful campaign of persuasion will never convince the Europeans that they aren’t being coerced. It can, however, soften their resentment. And a high-level overture to Europe would in itself send a positive message. It would show Europeans that despite the disagreement about Iran, the U.S. still respects them. Especially after the bruising G-7 summit, a little tenderness could go a long way.

Related Articles

End of American leadership?

Peter Rough

In an interview on Arirang News, Peter Rough discusses the WHO and US leadership. ...

Watch Now

Transcript: Dialogues on American Foreign Policy and World Affairs: A Conversation with Former Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken

Walter Russell Mead

Following is the full transcript of the July 7th, 2020 Hudson event titled Dialogues on American Foreign Policy and World Affairs: A Conversation with...

Continue Reading

Transcript: U.K.-China Clash: A Conversation with Sir Iain Duncan Smith MP

Ben Judah

Following is the full transcript of the July 8th, 2020 Hudson event titled U.K.-China Clash: A Conversation with Sir Iain Duncan Smith MP ...

Continue Reading