Trying desperately to buffer mounting tensions between America and Iran, Europe has sought to keep peace in the Middle East for years. Last week, those hopes were dashed. With his decision to assassinate General Qasem Soleimani, President Trump issues Tehran a fateful challenge: continue on a path of rhetoric, or commit to revenge. The latter will be forthcoming, Iran says. Whether that materialises militarily, we do not know; but diplomatic repercussions are all-but guaranteed.
US-Iranian relations have been on a steady slide for months. The pair’s foremost piece of peace-seeking diplomacy, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is now scarcely worth the paper it’s written on. Signed by President Obama in 2015, the agreement reined in Iran’s nuclear weapons programme in exchange for economic concessions. It was, for many, a historic accord that offered stability to the Middle East – but in the eyes of Donald Trump, JCPOA amounted to the “worst deal in history”. In May 2018, he announced the US’s unilateral withdrawal, replacing the pact with a raft of crippling sanctions.
Dismayed at Washington’s punitive measures – especially as Tehran had been abiding by the agreement’s conditions – EU leaders resolved to keep JCPOA on life support. Calling constantly for conciliation in the face of increasingly incendiary rhetoric, it’s been a thankless task. But still, there was hope – sustain the deal until November 2020, when, perhaps, a new, more sympathetic leader enters the Oval Office.
Soleimani’s assassination has ended any such ambition. Emboldened by the attack, Tehran’s hard-line government promptly announced its total disregard for JCPOA. For European leaders – who have strived to prevent the Middle Eastern state from developing weapons-grade uranium – it is a bitter blow. Regardless, as news of the killing broke, they clung to the dream of de-escalation.
In a joint statement, the leaders of France, Germany, and the UK called for an urgent dialling down of tensions, urging Iran to avoid a violent response. There was no explicit condemnation of the US’s sudden use of force – but neither, tellingly, was there a message of support.
This will have made poor reading for the Americans, particularly Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. In the immediate aftermath of the strike, he dispatched a series of near-identical tweets to his European counterparts – an effort, no doubt, to convey a united transatlantic front. But the stunt achieved little more than to suggest that only then, hours after the attack, was Europe being notified.
This should come as no surprise – on Middle East policy, Europe and America are miles apart. For the White House, Tehran represents an ever-present threat to its regional interests. In the last year, Iranian-made weapons have struck strategic targets in US-allied Saudi Arabia, taken down American drones, and inflicted damage on Western ships. EU leaders recognise this aggression, but unlike their Oval Office opposite number, they view Iran as a force to be contained through diplomacy, not pummelled by sanctions and airstrikes.
But diplomacy may be a luxury they can no longer afford. US soldiers across the Middle East are now targets for retaliatory action, Iran has made clear. That, by extension, puts European troops conducting NATO missions in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the firing line. Western civilians are in danger too, prompting the Netherlands to recall citizens living in Iraq, and for several EU nations to issue travel warnings.
And then there are the indirect security consequences. This week, furious Iraqi lawmakers voted to expel the country’s US army contingent. Instrumental in training local personnel, the 5,000 Americans based in Iraq have helped keep Islamic State – now a resurgent force – in check. Ordered to withdraw from the country, observers worry that the self-proclaimed caliphate could regain ground. Having suffered the group’s bloody terror tactics firsthand, EU leaders will rightly push back against any measure that facilities the extremists’ return.
But what can Europe do? Notoriously inflexible, it’s unlikely President Trump would have reevaluated the hit on Soleimani had European counterparts objected. And now the damage is done, EU leaders have little leverage to insist Iran reacts reasonably. Indeed, enjoying a wave of support provoked by the attack, Tehran’s leadership is more trenchant than ever.
And so, Europe may have to resign itself to the sidelines, calling desperately for calm while the world lurches towards war.