Several times this past week, the United States appeared out-of-step with European countries on whether Iran is presenting enough of a new threat to justify a military buildup and the partial evacuation of U.S. diplomats from neighboring Iraq.
Trump and European leaders have had a number of spats since the early days of his presidency on everything from trade to defense spending to climate change.
But with the Iran tensions threatening to boil over into military action, critics warn that Trump’s go-it-alone approach could have serious consequences.
“We’ve isolated ourselves,” said Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Jack Reed (D-R.I.). “There’s just a danger in terms of if something happens, we won’t have the ability to call upon them to come to our assistance and cooperate with us.”
U.S. tensions with Iran have skyrocketed in recent weeks following national security advisor John Bolton’s announcement that the Trump administration was deploying a carrier strike group and bomber task force to the Middle East over unspecified “troubling and escalatory indications and warnings” from Iran.
U.S. lawmakers saw their own alarm spike after the State Department announced the ordered departure of non-emergency personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and the U.S. Consulate in Erbil, with several noting that such a move was not even made when ISIS was bearing down on Baghdad in 2014.
Trump sought to lower temperatures on Thursday, telling reporters who asked whether the U.S. was nearing a war with Iran, “I hope not.”
Reports on Thursday also said Trump explicitly told aides, including acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, that he does not want war with Iran.
But along the way, rifts with Europe over Iran were exposed.
“They’re quite concerned that we’re taking steps that are accelerating tensions rather than decelerating tensions,” Reed said of the Europeans.
Asked whether Europeans are with the United States on Iran, Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), a member of the Senate Armed Services and Intelligence committees, said simply, “Not that I know of.”
Europe has long been at odds with Trump, who withdrew from the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal over European objections, over his policies on Tehran.
Europe has scrambled to save the nuclear deal, including attempting to set up a mechanism for European companies to evade U.S. sanctions and continue doing business with Iran.
The U.S-European divide over Iran spilled out into the Pentagon briefing room this past week.
A British general who is a deputy commander in the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS told Pentagon reporters that there has been “no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria,” in contradiction with the recent U.S. claims.
That led to an unusual statement from U.S. Central Command saying the allied general’s comments “run counter to the identified credible threats available to intelligence from U.S. and allies regarding Iranian backed forces in the region.”
The same day, Spain announced it was pulling its frigate from the U.S. carrier strike group that was redirected to the Persian Gulf because that was not the mission it agreed to. Still, Spain stressed it respected the U.S. decision to focus on Iran and would rejoin the group as soon as it returns to its original mission.
The dustup at the Pentagon followed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s cold reception in Brussels on Monday. Pompeo canceled a planned stop in Moscow to talk about Iran with his European counterparts.
As Pompeo was heading to Brussels, European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini told reporters she would talk with him only “if we manage to arrange a meeting.”
After she found the time to meet with him, Mogherini said the EU message to Pompeo was to exercise “maximum restraint,” evoking a contrast with the Trump administration’s so-called maximum pressure campaign.
The top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), warned that without Europe on the U.S. side, attempts to resolve the Iran tensions diplomatically could falter.
“We have a rocky relationship with our allies, and we need them to join with us to reconstitute the effort to bring Iran back to the negotiating table and get a good deal on their nuclear program,” he said.
Trump administration officials have repeatedly denied disagreements of substance with their European allies over Iran, with special representative Brian Hook repeating after Pompeo’s Brussels trip that “we agree on much more than we disagree.”
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch (R-Idaho), a Trump ally, acknowledged a difference between the United States and Europe over Iran, but suggested Europe will come around to the U.S. view soon enough.
“The Europeans are usually behind us a bit on these things, so they get more nervous than they should from time to time,” Risch said. “I feel quite certain they will catch up to us in short order.”
By the end of the week, England at least said it shares the U.S. intelligence assessment. The statement did not mention the Pentagon briefing, but appeared designed to do damage control.
“@SecPompeo and I discussed #Iran last week in London and again in Brussels on Monday,” U.K. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt tweeted Thursday. “We share the same assessment of the heightened threat posed by Iran. As always we work closely with the US.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a Trump ally who has been expressing concern about the dearth of information coming to Congress on the situation with Iran, brushed off concerns about a divide with Europe, pointing to Hunt’s statement.
“Before I worry about European concerns, I’d like my concerns to be addressed,” Graham added.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who co-chairs a NATO group in the Senate, said that while she hadn’t spoken to the Europeans recently she could infer their position on war: “They are not supportive of going to war in Iran.”