Allies fall out
US threats are alarming EU leaders, who fear more instability in the Middle East, writes Yassamine Mather
In early May, when Trump announced his withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal signed by the Obama administration in 2015, Iran’s supreme leader, ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was quoted as saying the United States can only tolerate “obedient” states. He used the derogatory word nokar, which means ‘house servant’.
In effect the comments by the new US secretary of state, former CIA director Mike Pompeo, who was giving his first major foreign policy speech, confirmed Khamenei’s claim. Announcing what he called the administration’s “Plan B” for countering the Islamic republic, Pompeo threatened economic devastation for Iran:
We will apply unprecedented financial pressure on the Iranian regime. The leaders in Tehran will have no doubt about our seriousness. Iran will never again have carte blanche to dominate the Middle East.
Of course, it is not clear from this speech who gave Iran carte blanche. Can we assume from Pompeo’s comment that, when they launched the Iraq invasion, George Bush and Tony Blair were aware that Iran’s Islamic Republic would be the main beneficiary?
Pompeo’s demands were basically for Iran’s complete submission to US foreign policy, including not just a withdrawal from Syria, but the ending of its alleged support for Hezbollah, Hamas, the Taliban and al Qa’eda! As anyone with minimal knowledge of the Middle East knows, the Taliban and al Qa’eda are Sunni groups enjoying Saudi and wider Arab funding and are opposed by Iran’s Shia Islamic state. The Taliban was supported by the CIA during the cold war, when Islamist groups were regarded by the US as allies against the Soviet Union, while Hamas was sponsored by the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, as a religious rival to the more secular and leftwing Palestine Liberation Organisation. Clearly complete ignorance of the basic facts and the repetition of neoconservative falsehoods are necessary qualifications for office-holders in the Trump administration.
Pompeo is clearly implying that ‘regime change from above’ for Iran is now being seriously considered in Washington. This exposes the irrelevance of comments by exiled ‘expert analysts’ who in the last few weeks have been encouraging the Iranian government to reduce its presence in Syria and Lebanon and agree a compromise on its ballistic capabilities in order to prevent a deterioration in relations with the US. It also serves as a stark warning to European states who want to bypass US sanctions.
Following the US president’s announcement regarding withdrawal from the Iran deal, political leaders in the European Union (including the Brexiting United Kingdom) have declared their determination to save the deal and have voiced strong opposition to US attempts at regime change.
Last week Boris Johnson, returning from a meeting with his EU counterparts, confirmed this:
I have to tell you that I do not believe that regime change in Tehran is the objective that we should be seeking ... We might conceivably achieve regime change at some stage in the near future, but I cannot with any confidence say that would be a change for the better because it seems equally plausible to me to imagine that Qasem Soleimani of the [Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps] could put himself in a very good position to take over from ayatollah Khamenei, for instance.1
European countries are not just concerned about the economic impact of sanctions. They also fear another war in the Middle East will create instability, causing yet another wave of refugees. They fear the environmental repercussions of any attempt by the US or Israel to use bunker-buster bombs to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Some EU leaders see Trump’s attitude in dismissing a deal achieved collectively by the 5+1 powers as an insult. They know that for every European company thinking of abandoning investment in Iran, a Chinese equivalent is waiting to take its place.
Friends no more
Before his state visit to Washington, French president Emmanuel Macron was bragging about his “close friendship” with Donald Trump and how he could change the attitude of his “best friend” towards the Iran deal. This did not happen and it seems Macron has not forgiven Trump. French cabinet ministers are now amongst the most vocal opponents of the US position on Iran (which is interesting, given that France is supposed to have embarked on a “special relationship” with the USA).
Soon after the US announcement, France’s finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, said European countries should stand firm against the Trump administration over the Iran nuclear deal and not act as “vassals” to the US, and on May 20 he was equally belligerent: “Are we going to allow the United States to be the economic policeman of the world? The answer is no,” said Le Maire. Referring to EU rules going back to 1996, he suggested that they “could allow the EU to intervene in this manner to protect European companies against any US sanctions”, adding that France wanted the EU to toughen its stance in this area.
In 1996, when the US tried to penalise foreign companies trading with Cuba, the EU managed to force Washington to back down through a threat of retaliatory sanctions. According to Macron,
International companies with interests in many countries make their own choices according to their own interests. They should continue to have this freedom ... but what is important is that companies - and especially medium-sized companies, which are perhaps less exposed to other markets, American or others - can make this choice freely.
German chancellor Angela Merkel echoed comments made by EU foreign affairs and security representative Federica Mogherini when she said the US withdrawal from the Iran accord was not a reason to ditch decades of transatlantic ties. Mogherini has referred regularly to 12 years of negotiations that culminated in the nuclear deal with Iran, reminding Americans that achieving another deal would not be easy.
As far as oil is concerned, a number of EU-based buyers say they will seek US waivers to purchase Iranian crude. According to Iranian oil minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh, “Our main customers are in Asia … but we expect to preserve and save this level of exports to Europe and Africa.”
EU investment in Iran, mainly from Germany, France and Italy, has grown considerably since 2016 and is currently estimated at €20 billion in projects ranging from aerospace to energy.
The French energy company, Total, has stated that it will pull out of a multibillion-dollar gas project in Iran if it cannot secure a waiver from US sanctions. This is bad news for Iran, as the project was presented by the government as a sign that the accord is a success. Other French companies, as well as those from Germany and Poland, have expressed concern about the effect on their business with Iran of new US sanctions. However, China is waiting in the wings. Its national oil company has already indicated it is willing to replace Total.
Miguel Arias Cañete, the EU’s climate action and energy commissioner, visited Tehran earlier this week to present a list of potential measures drafted by the EU to mitigate the impact of US sanctions. Cañete was quoted saying: “We want to solve all the problems that are impeding normal trade in oil.” The EU and Iran are also considering a proposal for European governments to make direct euro-denominated payments for oil exports to Iran’s central bank, bypassing the US financial system and its Office for Asset Control, which has been used to trace payments made to Iran.
Given the apparent conviction of Trump and Pompeo that regime change is imminent, one can only assume that their Iranian advisors - in the shape of the loony cult, Mojahedin-e Khalq, and the royalists who support the ex-shah’s son - have convinced the idiots currently in charge in Washington that further sanctions and economic hardship will pave the way for the collapse of the current regime. Nothing could be further from the truth. Inside Iran there is indeed despair and anger amongst ordinary people, but much more of it now seems to be directed against the US administration.
Young Iranians in particular are expressing frustration at what they consider an abrupt end to the progress made over the last two years. They know how sanctions have produced shortages of essential supplies, including medical equipment and drugs. They fear a return to the situation where second-rate or out-of-date medicine has been sold at extortionate prices.
For once Boris Johnson might be right. Any attempt at regime change in Iran will bolster the military and Revolutionary Guards, but it is unlikely that Khamenei will lose his position as supreme leader. Pompeo and Trump might have buried their heads in the sand, but most Iranians, including the reformist factions of the regime, are well aware that Khamenei’s die-hard supporters (a few hundred thousand is a conservative estimate) will defend Iran’s Islamic Republic to the last drop of their blood. This is a situation feared by most Iranians - including those of us who seek the overthrow of the Islamic Republic not through US intervention, but through a revolutionary uprising.