Trump's Turn on Iran Turns Off America's Allies

New sanctions on Iran will sour America's relationship with Europe.


Yang Chenglin Xinhua News Agency/Newscom

President Donald Trump's decision to ditch the Iranian nuclear deal was supposed to terrify Tehran into surrendering its nuclear program and cleaning up its behavior around the region. Instead the administration's renewed pressure campaign has provoked no change in Iran's activities—and now threatens to sour America's relationship with its European allies.

In early May, Trump terminated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and reimposed the sanctions suspended under the agreement. This was followed last week by additional sanctions on the Iranian central bank, with the U.S. officially designating its governor a terrorist for allegedly funneling millions to the militant group Hezbollah.

In a speech this morning at the Heritage Foundation, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued yet more demands for Tehran, including the complete cessation of its nuclear program, an end to its funding for armed groups across the Middle East, the withdrawal of Iranian forces from Syria, and a halt to its development of ballistic missiles.

Should Iran agree, Pompeo promised to lift all sanctions and restore full diplomatic and commercial ties with the country. Failure to comply would mean U.S.-enforced economic isolation.

"This sting of sanctions will be painful if the regime does not change its course," Pompeo promised. "These will end up being the strongest sanctions in history when they are complete."

Foreign policy scholars were quick to note how unrealistic Pompeo's demands were.

"The demands would require that the Iranian leopard not just change its spots but transform itself into a lamb," writes Barbara Slavin of the Atlantic Council. Emma Ashford of the Cato Institute agrees: "It is basically asking Iran to become Belgium or Switzerland," she tells Reason.

The idea that sanctions will prompt Iran to cease its nuclear program or cut support for long-time regional allies—both of which it considers vital to its national interest—shows a lack of seriousness from the Trump administation, argues Ashford.

Pompeo's speech "did really show that there is no new strategy on the horizon," she says. Yet while a stepped-up pressure campaign is unlikely to force Iran to change its behavior, Ashford adds, it will almost certainly strain relationship with our European allies.

France, Germany, and the United Kingdom were all party to the JCPOA. All three lobbied Trump hard to stay in the deal, and all have expressed a hope to keep the deal alive even without the U.S. on board.

European companies were quick to take advantage of the lessened sanctions ushered in by the JCPOA. The Telegraph, a British paper, reports that the European Union doubled its exports to Iran after the nuclear deal went into effect, exporting roughly $12.7 billion to the country in 2017. After China, Europe is Iran's biggest export market.

By reimposing sanctions and promising new ones, the U.S. will put itself in position of having to police and penalize European companies that, while complying with their own countries' rules, will inevitably run afoul of future restrictions. Pompeo acknowledged this in his remarks, saying "we understand that our reimposition of sanctions and the coming pressure campaign will pose financial and economic difficulties to our friends." He said that the U.S. would be sending teams of specialists abroad to explain the implications of the sanctions "and to listen."

Rather than getting on board with the Trump administration's plans, European leaders have been looking for ways to skirt the new sanctions. E.U. Commission President Jean-Claude Junker has floated the idea of routing Iranian-bound investments and payments for Iranian oil through European government banks to avoid America's restrictions.

The E.U. is also dusting off its old "blocking statute"—first used to avoid America's Cuba sanctions—which would make it illegal for European companies already doing businesses with Iran to comply with American sanctions and would compensate firms affected by the penalties.

In short: Rather than bringing around an American foe, Trump's exit from the JCPOA is merely souring relations with some of America's staunchest allies—while keeping us embroiled in a region that Trump himself has expressed a desire to leave.