Why is the EU still fantasizing about the Iran deal?

So why do EU politicians continue to peddle these fantasies of a revivified JCPOA? The official EU response to the US decision provides a strong clue.

European Union flags (photo credit: REUTERS)
European Union flags
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The European Union’s bizarre insistence on seeking to resuscitate the corpse of the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) reveals more about the EU mindset than about the merits of the agreement itself.
With foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini manning the defibrillator, the EU Commission, Council and Parliament continue to pledge an imaginative array of mechanisms to thwart US sanctions, keep the money flowing to Tehran, and shock the JCPOA back to life. According to Iranian media, the EU’s latest gambit is to consider opening a Tehran office.
Six months ago, when President Trump landed the fatal blow in announcing the American withdrawal from the JCPOA, extravagant EU promises to fortify the JCPOA by shielding companies from looming US sanctions made a little more sense. At that time, many big European firms contemplating Iran operations or agreements were still wavering.
But today, following more than 150 confirmed European pullouts since May – including some of the biggest names in EU business like Volvo, Renault, Maersk and Siemens – there are no longer buyers for what the EU is selling. Even the French and German governments, traditionally “the engine of European integration,” are scornful of the Brussels-based efforts.
So why do EU politicians continue to peddle these fantasies of a revivified JCPOA?
The official EU response to the US decision provides a strong clue.
Soon after President Trump’s announcement, Mogherini insisted that the JCPOA was “a significant achievement of multilateral diplomacy.”
That is accurate. Whatever one’s assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the deal, the act of reaching agreement among eight separate and unique players after 20 months of negotiations was unarguably a monumental diplomatic triumph.
For the EU, in particular, it was a moment of exaltation. It demonstrated, even without its own armed forces, the EU’s strength and value on the global stage – “one of the few instances where the bloc could deploy its collective diplomatic weight.” It showed that the EU, distinct from its constituent country members, could walk tall among the big beasts and carve out its own world-shaping – perhaps indispensable – mediating role. In iconic photographs, the EU’s “12 stars” flag was seen flying high alongside the flags of the US, Iran, Russia, China, France, Germany and the UK.
And standing beneath the EU flag was the EU high representative – first Lady Catherine Ashton, then Mogherini – repeatedly lauded between 2013 and 2015 as the “unlikely peacemaker between America and Iran,” playing “arguably the most important role in world diplomacy,” who “was front and center as European and American political leaders congratulated themselves over a historic nuclear agreement with Iran.” The Iran deal ensured that the EU went “from ‘zero’ to hero.”
BUT THE JCPOA turned into the last significant achievement for the EU.
Since that heady moment it’s been zero rather than hero. No sooner had the ink dried in Vienna in July 2015, than the EU began struggling with the combined fallout from the Syrian civil war migrant crisis, explicitly anti-EU governments sweeping to power in Hungary, Poland, and Italy, and most importantly,the Brexit referendum.
Within a short 12 months, the EU had gone from JCPOA hero to Brexit zero – easily the lowest point in the EU’s 67-year history, and a possible harbinger of “Italexit,” “Irexit,” “Grexit,” and any number of other “exits.” Even George Soros, one of the most prominent supporters of the EU project, acknowledged earlier in 2018 that the “EU is mired in an existential crisis” in which “everything that could go wrong has gone wrong.”
The EU’s ongoing attempts to double down on the JCPOA make far more sense when viewed within the broader context of its own existential challenges brought upon during these last three traumatic years. Obviously, Brussels must not truly believe it can revive the deal when its companies and member-states have explicitly chosen US business over the small Iranian market (which has a national GDP smaller than Washington State). But nonetheless, it simply cannot let go of a symbolically important achievement that has brought great prestige to the organization.
It is therefore not surprising that the EU seeks to preserve what may be one of its final major legacies – even at the high costs of threatening the integrity of the global financial system by excluding US anti-money laundering/combating the financing of terrorism expertise and damaging the trans-Atlantic alliance (just two of the potential fallouts from the current shortsighted schemes emanating from Brussels).
Rightly, the White House has blasted Brussels for genuflecting to Iran, the world’s premier state sponsor of terrorism, which continues to finance five of the world’s top-10 richest terrorist groups. But maybe the president, secretaries Pompeo and Mnuchin, and National Defense Adviser Bolton should view the EU’s behavior more sympathetically and see it is not as much about reanimating the JCPOA cadaver – dead in practice yet alive in symbolism – but about breathing life into the EU project itself.
United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) is a not-for-profit, bipartisan, advocacy group that seeks to prevent Iran from fulfilling its ambition to obtain nuclear weapons. UANI was founded in 2008 by former ambassador Mark D. Wallace, the late ambassador Richard Holbrooke and Middle East expert Ambassador Dennis Ross and is led by a diverse advisory board of policy experts and former government officials.
The writer is research director at United Against Nuclear Iran in New York and leads its business intelligence and corporate engagement efforts.