The Hill | KENNETH R. TIMMERMAN: President Trump has shifted the global order with his decision to pull the United States out of the Iranian nuclear agreement, causing a major rift with European allies and raising tensions in the Middle East.
Long-simmering turmoil over Syria between Israel and Iran, both seemingly emboldened by Trump’s decision, erupted this week when Iran targeted Israeli soldiers on the Golan Heights and Israel retaliated.
Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Europe could no longer depend on the United States, comments that were echoed by French President Emmanuel Macron. Both leaders had made eleventh-hour trips to Washington to try and talk Trump out of the leaving the Iran pact.
“It’s another blow to the trans-Atlantic alliance,” said Sen. Bob Menendez(D-N.J.), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “The Europeans don’t know what to make anymore about how strong and how deep our alliance is with them. And we need them. We critically need them to achieve many of our goals, both as it relates to Iran and other things”
On Tuesday, Trump announced he was withdrawing from the 2015 accord between Iran and the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Russia and China that places limits on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.
In doing so, Trump promised to institute the “highest level of economic sanction,” including on “any nation that helps Iran in its quest for nuclear weapons.”
That leaves open the possibility that European companies that do business with Iran will be sanctioned by the U.S. should European leaders continue to uphold their obligations to the nuclear deal.
The top diplomats from the European Union, Germany, France and Britain are scheduled to meet Tuesday with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to discuss the future of the pact.
Trump and administration officials say withdrawing from the deal doesn’t preclude negotiations with the Europeans on a new deal to address not only Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but also other troubling activities, including its ballistic missile program and military activities throughout the Middle East.
“We will work with our allies and try to bring Iran back into more responsible behavior, at the same time addressing all five of the threats that Iran constitutes,” Defense Secretary James Mattis, who favored staying in the Iran deal, told a Senate panel Wednesday.
But Trump’s decision on Iran is the latest slap in the face for European allies who have tried unsuccessfully to lobby Trump on a number of issues, including the Paris climate agreement and his steel and aluminum tariffs.
Barbara Slavin, director of the Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Initiative, said European leaders have little incentive to negotiate with the United States on Iran beyond ensuring their companies aren’t sanctioned for doing business with the country.
She described current U.S.-European relations as being at a low point she hasn’t seen the start of the Iraq War.
“Trump humiliated the leaders of Britain, France and Germany,” Slavin said. “He was toying with them like a cat with a mouse. He never intended to keep this deal.”
The break with the Europeans was a key factor cited by those opposed to ripping up the agreement, given that the Obama administration had worked so closely with those allies to make the deal a reality.
“There was very strong feeling among our European allies that what the president did is wrong, so it has an impact” on relations, said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.).
But those who support Trump’s move dismissed the Europeans’ concerns.
“We’re going to see some posturing in European capitals, and the reason is because there are some big European companies that want to do business with Iran, and that’s got a lot of the European countries defending this deal,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said on “Fox & Friends.”
Behnam Ben Taleblu, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said he’s “not a fan of the U.S. airing its dirty laundry in front of Iran,” but that if Trump does not sanction European companies, “we’re in a situation where the emperor has a no clothes.”
“It’s high risk, high reward,” he said. “Even though I’m not a proponent at all for unilateral withdrawal, he did not equivocate. He went all in on withdrawal. What that means is enforcements must also be all in. Enforcement cannot be selective.”
Meanwhile, tensions that have been bubbling in the Middle East could start boiling over, experts warn, pointing to Thursday’s Israel-Iran clash as a sign of what’s to come.
Though Iran and Israel have been clashing over Syria for a while, Thursday’s action was an escalation. By Israel’s account, a volley of rockets aimed at its positions in the Golan Heights was the first time Iranian forces have directly fired on Israeli troops rather than using proxy forces. Israel said it responded by striking dozens of Iran-linked military sites inside Syria, one of its largest operations in Syria in decades.
Syrian and Iranian news outlets accused Israel of firing first and that it was Syria responding to Israel’s attack.
Menendez said the incident was “not necessarily” connected to Trump’s Iran decision, though it could have “exacerbated” the situation.
Slavin said the Iranians had been holding back from targeting Israel at they waited to see what Trump would do on the Iran deal. Neither country wants a full-scale war, she said, but the chances for miscalculation are high.
Taleblu said the Trump administration can diffuse the situation in the Middle East and with European leaders by more clearly stating its goals now that it’s withdrawn from the Iran deal, including what it expects from Iran, what it is willing to do about Syria and how it intends to implement sanctions on Europeans.
“America must keep its eye on the prize,” he said, “but what is that prize?”