As Ursula von der Leyen prepares to take the reins of the European Commission, there are dark clouds forming on the horizon in Europe.
Of the foreign policy issues confronting Brussels, none is more pressing - or carries the same explosive threat - as that of Iran and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed in July 2015.
Now more than ever, the EU must be a mature actor on the world stage. While it is incumbent on Europe not to abandon a course of action simply because the road ahead is difficult, neither can we afford to fix our foreign policy upon a lodestar, never again to evaluate its merits. When realities on the ground change so must we.
With this in mind, there are two clear lines of reasoning now pointing to the fact that the EU must rethink its position vis-a-vis Iran and the JCPOA.
The first compelling reason is that the JCPOA, for all intents and purposes, is a “dead deal walking.” Pragmatism dictates that if Washington does not want to uphold the JCPOA, there is little the EU can do to keep it alive. Moreover, by working at cross purposes with our US ally, the EU has, despite its good intentions, contributed to a situation whereby Iran has neither sufficient incentive to behave nor sufficient disincentive not to misbehave. The results of this muddle are clear to see.
The recent attacks on commercial vessels in the Gulf of Oman have occurred in the more troubling context of Tehran’s announcement that it has purposefully breached the uranium enrichment threshold set by the JCPOA, and that it intends to progressively reduce its adherence to the deal until it gets its way.
Some may argue that by abandoning the JCPOA, the EU will lose leverage over Iran. But the reality is that whatever “leverage” we currently possess is doing little to curb Tehran’s worst instincts. And if the ultimate purpose of keeping the JCPOA alive is to dissuade Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons, clearly we are not on track. The realist’s conclusion is that the EU’s self-styled role of “good cop” isn’t working now and won’t work moving forward.
The second reason why the EU must urgently change tack with Iran is less to do with pragmatism and more to do with principle. It will be clear to all but those blinded by ideology that upholding our part of the JCPOA has done nothing to mitigate Tehran’s malign influence across the Middle East, and particularly in Yemen and Syria.
Iran’s part in fuelling the disgraceful Yemeni civil war is reprehensible and goes against core EU values. Fuelled by Iranian hardware and support for the Houthi rebels, the humanitarian crisis seen in that country is a direct consequence of Tehran’s irresponsible foreign policy tactics.
Similarly, the seizure of an Iranian supertanker which, despite Iran’s subterfuge, was clearly destined for Syria lays bare the reality of the situation: allowing Tehran to do business means pouring fuel on one of the worst humanitarian crises in living memory.
Some may feel as if they are pursuing the moral higher ground by not falling in line with Washington, but we must each of us ask ourselves if we are comfortable with the collateral effects of providing respite to a regime which suppresses democracy at home while fomenting chaos abroad.
Steering the middle course with Tehran and the JCPOA is not working. It is costing lives in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere, while Tehran has begun again to enrich uranium. Pragmatism necessitates that we row together with Washington. Principle dictates that we stand up for the rights of those that cannot defend themselves.
- Ambassador Giulio Terzi di Sant'Agata is a former Foreign Minister of Italy, former Italian Ambassador to the United States, former Permanent Representative of Italy to the United Nations and part of the Advisory Board of UANI.
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