What role can NATO play to ease the Iranian crisis?

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that his country had concluded its attacks on American forces and did not seek an escalation of war after launching more than 20 ballistic missiles at two military bases in Iraq.

Although senior Iraqi defence officials who work with the US command said that no Americans or Iraqis had been killed in the attacks, Bloomberg’s Karen Leigh, Iain Marlow and Michael Arnold argue that Tehran’s retaliatory strikes could provide the Trump administration with an excuse to avert war. This is because no Americans were killed during the attacks and they were carefully orchestrated by the Iranian Government to ensure US President Donald Trump did not have a reason to start a new conflict. Faysal Itani, a deputy director at the Center for Global Policy in Washington, called it a ‘measured response.’

However, there is still an opportunity for other nations to play their part in easing the crisis. Russia seems to be the only country that has criticised the US’s actions. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov condemned the US killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani.

Meanwhile, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi described the US’s action last Friday as ‘unacceptable’, but has refused to condemn Washington’s actions. With Beijing currently in the midst of concluding its trade negotiations with the US, they have much to lose by upsetting the Trump administration. Also, they depend upon both Saudi Arabia and Iran for oil, so they are aware that choosing sides in the Middle East is not in their best interests.

If Iran is intent upon avoiding war now that it has engaged in retaliatory attacks against the US following Soleimani’s killing, this is an opportunity for more NATO states to help ease the situation. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has stated that he will not ‘lament’ the Iranian general’s death, but he is also keen to ensure Britain does not participate in another US-led conflict.

French President Emmanuel Macron asked Iranian President Hassan Rouhani not to escalate tensions during a phone call on Tuesday. He urged his Iranian counterpart to respect the 2015 Iran Deal.

Rouhani told Macron that the US cannot be immune from retribution, but said that Iran would return to full compliance with the nuclear deal as soon as other participant countries meet their own obligations under the terms of the deal.

The French President could be a useful ally to Trump regarding Iran. Unlike Washington, he has a direct channel of communication with the Iranian Government and he almost persuaded Trump and Rouhani to meet following the G7 meeting last August, until the US President cancelled at the last minute. Therefore, NATO states like France can make a difference.

The US has no intention of abiding by the 2015 deal, but they do not want another conflict either. The Trump administration should aim to replace Obama’s agreement with one that prevents Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and ease its sanctions in return.

NATO countries can help both sides conclude a new deal by opening up direct channels of communication with Iran, like Macron has, but they should also support Trump more. The 2015 deal failed to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons altogether and it allowed Tehran to continue to sponsor terrorist groups. It is in few nations’ best interests to allow the Islamic Republic to continue to do this and they know that the end result could be war if the Obama deal is not replaced.

NATO knows that Russia intends to play a more direct role in Middle Eastern politics. It is unclear how Moscow would react if it came to war, which is why Western countries should be collaborating with Trump more to prevent Putin from manipulating this situation to his advantage.

Western states have much to gain by supporting the Trump administration because if they do not, they are aware that the consequences would be devastating.