Iran and the EU, in the Same Boat until 2020

24 January 2019 | 19:22 Code : 1981332 From the Other Media General category
Interview with Joost Hiltermann, MENA Program Director for International Crisis Group.
Iran and the EU, in the Same Boat until 2020

Will Iran remain in the nuclear deal? Why have Europeans failed so far to fulfill their commitments under the JCPOA after Donald Trump’s withdrawal? Will Brussels prefer its ties with the US against preservation of the JCPOA? Three years after the implementation of the JCPOA, Washington’s withdrawal and reimposition of nuclear sanctions has made it a tough job for other signatories to resume with the deal. Europe’s laggard attitude towards launching the Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) as an independent channel for financial transactions with Iran has made Tehran impatient and compelled it to send signals of readiness to resume pre-JCPOA nuclear activities. In an interview with Etemad’s Sara Massoumi, Joost Hilterman, Project Director for MENA (Middle East & North Africa) Region of the International Crisis Group says that EU insists on upholding the nuclear deal and Iran’s withdrawal from JCPOA would be a catastrophe. Hilterman, who has traveled to Iran amid tensions between Brussels and Tehran, believes that EU has tied hopes to 2020 elections in the US and a new president in the White House. Following is the transcript of our interview:


There is consensus among experts that predicting the next step of Donald Trump in the international stage is difficult. How much do you agree with this statement? Do you think the current American administration is predictable?


Compared to previous US governments, this one is certainly more unpredictable in foreign policy than its predecessors, and I’ll give the reasons in a second. On the other hand, we do see the outlines of a strategic approach that is not so different from Obama’s approach to the Middle East in the sense that, maybe for different reasons but partly the same reasons, the United States doesn’t want to get involved directly in the problems of the region as they see it. So there is consistency there. But I think for Obama it was more like “listen, we’re here to protect you, but do not drag us into your own conflicts in order to help you because you need to solve them yourselves.” For the Trump Administration, it is more “we don’t really care what you do; we’re here to make America great again through economic measures at home, creating jobs, etc.” So even the issue of protection has become less prominent than it was under Obama. But I have to say that Pompeo in his most recent speech in Cairo said the opposite. But now we come to the confusion and the unpredictability in the American policy for a number of reasons. One is that Trump doesn’t really understand any of this. He’s a businessman who is in the wrong place. Secondly, there is politically a big difference between him and his national security staff and so there is a real tug-of-war between the two sides about foreign policy. Trump is playing to his domestic base, which is his only source of support, whereas the international security staff have a broader view of the region and are closely aligned with Israel, are very anti-Iran and they want to pursue that particular path. These two will collide and now we’ve seen in Syria how they collide. 


What are the causes of this unpredictability?


The reasons are: He doesn’t understand the issues; he’s a businessman who is out of his depth; he’s impulsive; and he disagrees with the decisions of the people he has appointed.


What are the consequences or disadvantages of this unpredictability in his policies?


I will first give you the advantage to American policy, if you want to look at it that way…I’m not American but I can see why a degree of unpredictability could be an advantage to American policy: it helps you keep your rivals and enemies on their toes, on the defensive. You know, they never know what you’re going to do next, so they have to be very careful. In any confrontation that is an advantage. On the other hand, there is no strategy behind the unpredictability and so actually, the disadvantages are much greater than this one advantage because what happens is that American allies lose faith in the United States as their protector and supporter. Secondly, as a consequence of that, America's allies start making their own decisions and acting autonomously, which can be at odds with American interests. This can cause conflicts and it might even cause these countries to start talking to America’s enemies, which would be very strange from an American interests’ point of view. 


It seems that Europe is experiencing a different relationship with the United States. President Trump has no fear of leaving the international treaties and agreements. What are the consequences of this policy for transatlantic relations between Europe and US?


Those relations are definitely strained at the moment. There is absolutely no love for Trump in Europe among the ruling parties except maybe in those places like Italy where populist leaders have come to power. But by and large, in Germany, France and Britain, Trump is looked at with great skepticism, if not dislike, because of his rejection of multilateral agreements and negotiations. The world we have today was built, from the European and American perspective of course, on the basis of what happened in the WWII and the institutions that were built since then. Those institutions have maintained the peace for decades and now for reasons, for many reasons, they are being challenged and Trump is a manifestation of that, not the cause of it; he’s challenging it. And he’s accelerating the breakdown that is happening. We don’t know if this will be a total breakdown, but definitely there’s a lot of uncertainty. So there’s a real strain in the transatlantic relationship for that reason. And the Europeans are waiting to cede if this is just a momentary thing: is it just Trump or is there a longer trend and do we need to prepare for it? and of course internally in Europe, they can see that there is in fact more; there is also a lot of opposition inside Europe to what has been built in the last few decades.


Do you think EU countries will take a path to greater economic and political independence from US? If yes, how successful they could be in this process?


I cannot predict that. But I definitely see an attempt to move away from the United States to some extent. But it is only because of Trump and so everybody is waiting for the elections in two years to see what happens.


Just like in Iran.


Yes, just like in Iran because maybe things will change again or maybe not, we don’t know, but until then, let’s wait, then we decide. So at the moment, Europeans will try to push in some areas where the United States is no longer very active but they don’t want to break the transatlantic relationship at this time at all. And in fact, if we talk about Iran, if it’s coming to a choice, with Europe saying: “we need to work with Iran because we signed an agreement with them; it’s a multilateral agreement, it’s a nonproliferation agreement, it’s very important to us…” And then they compare that to breaking the transatlantic relationship, they will choose the transatlantic relationship because strategically it’s just more important. This could change if after 2020 we have more Trump or more people like Trump.


How do you evaluate president Trump policy toward Iran? Their declared policy is that they seek changes in Iran behavior but their actual policy leaves no doubt for the Iranian governments that they seek regime change.


Again, we don’t know what Trump is seeking.


According to his actions and policies. 


Yes but I mean if you say Trump administration that’s one thing, if you say Trump, that’s another. I really don’t know what Trump thinks or does from one day to the next. But if you say Trump administration, meaning including his national security team, then I think what they say explicitly is that they want Iran to change its behavior in the region and as Pompeo said, “To become a normal country again,” which is a very strange statement to me, but in any case, that’s what he said. But there are different ways of becoming a normal country again. The hidden notion is what they want is for the regime to go. They haven’t said it explicitly, but John Bolton has almost said it. So, in a way, everybody knows that. Like you say, in Iran certainly the interpretation is that the objective is regime change. But maybe that’s more of a threat and not a realistic objective. From my point of view, it is not a realistic objective, but some of them may think it is. Others may think it is a useful thing to threaten and then accomplish what they really want to accomplish which is Iran’s compliance with nuclear restrictions and restrictions on its regional behavior and restrictions on its ballistic missiles, etc. 


Nowadays here in Iran, many people believe that there is no difference between EU countries and US, especially after EU’s likely failure to go on with SPV or other economic guarantees that Iran has demanded. In which areas the American and European policies about Iran are different?


We have to be careful to distinguish positions from actions and we also have to understand that the American-European relationship is very difficult, very complex and very old. We have to take into account that the United States until now is a world power with the dollar playing a dominant role in the global economy. So, as I said earlier, European leaders (France, Germany and Britain) don’t like Trump, and they don’t agree with Trump on his Iran policy. They have made this very clear. So their positions are very different from the American position. But in terms of their actions, they’re really strained by their relationship with the United States and by the fact that the dollar is the hegemonic currency. Therefore, they’re trying to set up the SPV, because it will circumvent the dollar's dominance; whether it will succeed we'll have to see. So, I would say judge not only on actions because then you are not going to be satisfied, but judge also on the positions and the notion that just like Iran is waiting for two years to see what happens, so is Europe. We’re in the same boat.


Recently, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has called Europe and others to make investments and pay the bill for their efforts and global security. “You can’t swim without getting wet”. How do you evaluate Europe’s effort to save the nuclear deal?


It’s very hard to say because, again, in terms of declarations, and I think they’re genuine, the Europeans want to save the nuclear deal very much. Because they see it as a critical building block in the nonproliferation regime. Also, they have economic interests in Iran; they want to open up the country for economic trade, investment. So, they have good reasons for this. At the same time, they are restrained by what they can actually can do without jeopardizing their relationship with the United States. Also, keep in mind that European businesses are not government institutions and so the government cannot order them to do one thing or another. While the governments in Europe or European Union may encourage companies to do business with Iran and say “we’ll try to protect you,” businesses make business decisions and they will say “well, we don’t trust the situation. So we are not going to do this until we have a different government in the United States that actually complies with the agreements that is signs. So this is the problem. Again, we’re in a holding pattern. We have to wait for two years. Maybe people are losing their patience and they will not wait, that’s one possibility. But we can also wait to see what happens and then react to it. If people wait for two years, then at least we know what the next four years are going to bring and we can base our decisions on that. And then you may see that the Europeans will support much stronger actions toward Iran in a positive way. And maybe, if there’s a democratic president in the United States, that person may also be willing to pull back to a better relationship with Iran.


Do you think a Democrat president would return to JCPOA?


No way of saying; there is no guarantee. It depends on the presidential candidate who wins. But as the International Crisis Group, we are asking the presidential candidates, who are not yet known, to declare their willingness to rejoin the JCPOA.


Some critics of JCPOA in Iran believe that EU concludes Iran will stay in the deal in any circumstances so they don’t risk their political and economic relations with US for the sake of saving the Iran deal. How much do you agree with this?


I don’t know. In Europe there are also many people with different points of view and so I am sure there are some who calculate that Iran will still stay in the deal and there are others who are afraid that Iran will not stay in the deal. Maybe there are even people who don’t want Iran to stay in the deal. You know…Europe is very diverse, just like Iran is or the United States. 


What about the major E3 countries which are in the deal?


I don’t have a sense as to what the leaders think. But I do know that for them, as I said earlier, the relationship with the United States is more strategic, more important than their relationship with Iran. So if they have to choose -- they don't want to choose; they want to have both -- but if they have to choose, they will choose their relationship with the United States unless, or until, the time comes when they have to give up on the United States. Hopefully, for the Europeans that will not happen. 

Iranian officials say that Iran will stick to the nuclear deal as long as it receives benefits from the deal, so if EU couldn’t afford economic interests of Iran, there is no reason for Tehran to stay in the deal. How do you evaluate the consequences of Iran withdrawal?


This depends on how the withdrawal happens, but for Europe this would be a terrible thing. They don’t want Iran to leave the JCOPA because they see that the risk of armed conflict and war in the Middle East will become very high.


Some say that America and Europe are manipulating Iran: while US imposed nuclear sanctions against Iran, EU countries try to keep Tehran in the deal by empty promises. They hope at the end of this game economic difficulties will bring Iran back to the negotiation table or it will lead to a change in Iran's behavior in the region. How much do you agree with this? Critics believe that first, the EU and US put restrictions on our nuclear activities, and now they are trying to put an end to our missile capabilities. After that they would ask for changes in Iran regional behavior.


Again the impetus for this comes from the United States much more than from Europe, even though we’ve heard President Macron of France also talking about these issues. There’s a general concern, but not a huge concern like the nuclear issue, about Iran’s missile program. This mostly comes from the United States. So I understand that critics of the JCPOA in Iran are having these ideas.


And it is very hard to understand sometimes that when you have negotiated a treaty or agreement with such difficulty over such a long time, and so intensively in so much detail, and then suddenly the United States withdraws from it. That is not normal. So, you know, if I were sitting in Iran, I would also be asking myself: "What is going on here? What are they really thinking?” But I am sitting in Europe and I know what people are thinking most of the time; and I understand that there is a genuine desire for Iran to stay in the JCPOA, for Europe to stay in the JCPOA, and for the United States to change its mind under a new leadership. 


Do you think European countries welcome Trump’s pressure on Iran to change its behavior in the region and also restrict its missile activities?


I think the United States has no faith in Europe that it can produce these results. 


It seems JCPOA became a prelude to further regional cooperation between Iran and EU and the best example of this is Iran’s role in convincing Houthis to attend the latest round of negotiations in Switzerland. How does the failure of the nuclear agreement affect regional cooperation between Iran and EU?


Well, as you say, you already gave a good example; there is regional cooperation, and the Yemen case is a good one. We still need to see concrete results, but we just had negotiations in Sweden on Yemen, and the Houthis were there. Now we have the next challenge which is the implementation of the Stockholm agreement. And this is problematic for both sides in the war: the Houthis and the government forces. There have been some violations by both sides, but nothing major, until now. And so, if this is an example of cooperation, it’s a positive one until now. And Yemen is a good place to start because for Iran it’s of less strategic importance than Syria or Iraq, but I can imagine the cooperation could be extended also to other issues in the region where Iran is involved in conflict. What we need to see, not only from the Iranian side, but from both sides, from all sides, of course is de-escalation in the region. And if Iran can contribute to this positively, by some steps that it can take without harming its own strategic interests, that would be fantastic. 


The declared policy of Trump Administration in Syria is that they are going to leave. Do you think the absence of US influence in Syria, if it happens, will lead to further cooperation between Iran and European countries in Syria?


That’s difficult because in Syria, European countries are skeptical of the ability of president Bashar al-Asad to stabilize the country because of the mess he has made. Frankly, even in Iran people say that the Syrian government in 2011 reacted in the wrong way to the protests. So Bashar Al-Asad has a lot of responsibility for the damage…he’s not the only one responsible…all sides are…but he was the leader at the time and he took that decision. So, unfortunately it has led to seven years of war and now how can he rebuild his country politically and economically in any sensible way? The Europeans don’t want to help him because they think that it will just be more of the same. He has not addressed any of the problems that caused the uprisings in 2011. 


Don’t you think the reopening of the embassies, especially Arab countries, and European countries (since there were rumors that some European countries have established communication with Damascus) is tantamount to re-acknowledgement of Bashar Al-Asad?


Some countries are, yes.


But not European countries?


Not the big ones. Not the major financial powers. Yes, some of the smaller ones, maybe for commercial interests.


Some experts predict 2019 will be a year of confrontation between Iran and US or US allies. How much do you agree with this prediction? Do you think military confrontation between Iran and US clients in the region will occur?


This is a good question. Of course this is not only something in the coming years: we have also seen it in the past years. After all, Israel has attacked Iranian assets in Syria and there have been other confrontations elsewhere. So this has been going on. And I think because it hasn’t escalated yet to all-out war, I that neither side wants an all-out war because if they wanted it, they could have done it, they could have started it. So our concern is not so much about any side wanting a war as any single incident triggering a war without anyone wanting it. 


Just now Secretary Pompeo is in the region trying to form a coalition against Iran. It seems US policy in the region is Divide and rule. What are the disadvantages of this policy for the region that is struggling with different kind of terrorism and security challenges?


Yes, I’m not sure that American policy is so much divide and rule: they want to build a coalition against Iran. But the problem is that their own coalition is divided and they cannot control it. 


You mean Qatar crisis?


You know this whole alliance against Iran is not an alliance, it’s a mess. The Saudis and the Emiratis have their own differences, but they’re still closely aligned, but the Egyptians don’t really want to be part of it. The Israelis always have their own way of doing things. The United States wants these countries to solve their problems without American involvement. These countries want America to solve their problems without themselves making their hands dirty. So, in the end, there is no alliance. It’s just talk. And the speech by Mr. Pompeo in Cairo is just talk. There is nothing behind it.


Do you think Iran should worry about what is going to happen in Poland next month? Secretary Pompeo has announced an international summit about and against Iran.


We'll have to see what happens. Because of Trump, the United States is in an isolationist mode, which means they are not going to project power actively outside the US but they still keep the rhetoric because they want to be seen as the world power. That is why the speech by Mr. Pompeo in Cairo was so odd because he makes all the noises, but he doesn’t take any of the actions. He’s saying “the United States is back…we’re here.” At the same time, they’re taking their troops out of Syria. I’m not saying I’m in favor of American troops in Syria, but I’m just saying there’s a glaring contradiction here.


Source: Etemad Daily