After months of swaggering hesitation, President Trump finally announced the United States’ withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran, to which Britain, France, Russia, China, Germany and the European Union are also parties. This action tramples on European leaders, who urged Mr. Trump to exercise restraint in the interest of international security and multilateralism.
Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, reacted to Mr. Trump’s announcement with a sharp statement. The European Union and the rest of the international community, she said, would “preserve this nuclear deal.” The question is how. Notwithstanding an abundance of kvetching, European powers have not yet shown Mr. Trump that he has anything to fear from ignoring their wishes.
To be sure, European leaders have expended plenty of verbiage, illuminating the broad consensus that Iran is abiding by the terms of the deal. President Emmanuel Macron of France implored the Trump administration not to scupper the agreement during a recent visit to Washington. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany echoed his sentiments, as did Britain’s foreign minister, Boris Johnson, in these pages on Sunday.
But mere words aren’t going to dissuade this White House. Since taking office, Mr. Trump has treated Europe like a doormat, questioning the value of NATO, ridiculing the mission of the European Union and dismissing European exhortations on policy matters.
Given all this, the European Union in particular may feel compelled to acknowledge the harsh reality that it has yet to act like an organization with a G.D.P. roughly equal to that of the United States — and to change the situation by signaling to Washington that on certain matters it refuses to be ignored. The trouble the European Union has had uniting around highly sensitive issues — immigration, for example — is perhaps understandable. But the Iran deal does not appear to be divisive: From the pro-Brexit Mr. Johnson to the avowed internationalist Mr. Macron, European politicians understand its value.
What can Europe do to get Mr. Trump’s attention? President Hassan Rouhani of Iran has indicated that his country will continue to adhere to the terms of the deal for the time being and deal with other parties to it in hopes of securing its benefits. This confers on the European Union, Britain and France — all of which are parties — some leverage. Acknowledging Iran’s compliance and continuing to do business with Iran without imposing sanctions would mitigate the effect of the White House’s sanctions and make it easier for advocates of the deal in Tehran to make their case.
The administration’s challenge — the American ambassador to Germany has already said that German companies doing business in Iran should wind down operations now — might prompt Europe to go further. The European Union could, for instance, announce the withdrawal of member-states’ ambassadors from the United States. Isn’t this what states do when diplomatic partners breach solemn agreements, expose them to security risks and threaten to wreak havoc on their economies? That is, after all, what the administration is threatening to do by courting the risk of a Middle Eastern war and applying secondary sanctions to European companies. Depending on the American response, European capitals might even follow up with expulsion of American ambassadors.
It would be hard to fault these moves as irresponsible, given that they would not impair vital security functions like intelligence-sharing and law enforcement coordination. They would, however, symbolize a stark diplomatic breach that could extend to other areas in which the Trump administration needs allied support. Thus, the White House would face the first hard choice in this whole process: a full-blown crisis in trans-Atlantic relations. If the administration’s next move were to impose secondary sanctions on Europe, the Europeans could slap its own penalties on American multinational corporations, which in turn would place additional pressure on the White House.
For the European Union to target the United States commercially for attempting to adversely affect legitimate trade relationships would be radical. But it would arise in response to correspondingly egregious American behavior. By virtue of the 1944 Bretton Woods Agreement, European allies conferred economic leadership on the United States. Now the United States, in breaching the Iran deal and reimposing sanctions, has turned the very weapon that those allies bestowed on it against them.
No matter what the European Union or its member states do, it’s unrealistic to think that Mr. Trump will change his mind on the Iran deal. But Europe’s objective would be to keep Iran in a deal that continues to block Iran’s path to a nuclear bomb irrespective of American policy. Iran wouldn’t stick with it unless they thought the European Union could deliver on sanctions relief. The moves suggested here would go a long way toward making this case.
There are few recent historical examples of effective European opposition to American foreign policy. Europe essentially opposed the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War, but the United States’ military and substantial economic autonomy meant that it had no real leverage, and Cold War realities probably would have constrained the exercise of that leverage even if it had existed. And the Vietnam War, as vexing and tragic as it was, occurred off the beaten trans-Atlantic path and had geographically containable effects.
The Iran case is different. Europe is at odds with the United States on an agreement to which it is a party, concerning a matter of wide-ranging strategic and regional importance. If this doesn’t end the European Union’s doormat foreign policy, we might as well start referring to it as the 28 colonies ruled from across the ocean. This is not an outcome the United States should welcome. As Britain learned in 1939, it’s a lot better to have allies than colonies.
Steven Simon, author of the forthcoming book “The Long Goodbye: The U.S. and the Middle East from the Islamic Revolution to the Arab Spring,” was the National Security Council’s senior director for the Middle East and North Africa from 2011 to 2012. Jonathan Stevenson is a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. He was director for political-military affairs, Middle East and North Africa, at the National Security Council from 2011 to 2013.