Over the last two months, Europe has anxiously observed attacks against six oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz, the bombing of a Saudi Arabian airport, and the downing of a U.S. drone operating in international air space. All of these acts were perpetrated by Iran or her proxies.
After contemplating and cancelling a retaliatory military strike against Iran, the United States responded by launching a cyberattack against Iranian weapons systems and imposing sanctions against Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. European leaders responded by calling for talks in an effort to deescalate the U.S.-Iran stand-off. Iran answered that call by violating terms of the 2015 nuclear deal by enriching uranium to 4.5 percent beyond the deal’s limits of 3.67 percent and creating a stockpile of uranium beyond what the deal allows.
Per the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran’s clear breaches of the agreement give the other parties to the deal (the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China — the United States withdrew last year) grounds for initiating a process that would lead to the “snap-back” of United Nations sanctions against Iran that were suspended as a result of the deal. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called on these countries to take that step. But, in response to these breaches, French President Emmanuel Macron has again called for talks, and he has dispatched an envoy to Tehran.
Why does Europe persist in trying to save the flawed 2015 nuclear deal through talking? There are two primary reasons.
First, European leaders invested significant political capital and time into a bad deal with Iran, and it’s not yet willing to admit its mistake. Economists refer to a continuing pursuit of a misguided course, even when it yields continued negative results as the sunk cost fallacy. Europe, along with the Obama administration, believed that a temporary pause to certain aspects of Iran’s nuclear program was a good trade for the lifting of sanctions and allowing Iran access to billions of dollars. The hope was that the deal would lead to a better-behaved Iran.
Europe, heavily dependent on Middle East oil, also hoped that Iran could be a new market for its oil and industrial companies. Those things didn’t happen. Iran pocketed the money, and continued to conduct a campaign of violence, terrorism, and repression in its pursuit of hegemony in the region. Following U.S. sanctions, European companies chose the U.S. market over Iran’s. Now, Iran is daring Europe to act by ramping up uranium enrichment and stockpiles.
Second, unwilling to admit their own miscalculations, many European leaders blame the current tensions on the U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal and implementation of a range of sanctions that have reduced Iran’s oil exports by 90 percent and pummeled Iran’s economy. This anti-Trump bias was further demonstrated when European leaders questioned U.S. military evidence of Iran’s culpability for the tanker attacks. The problem with this blinkered view is that it treats Iran as an innocent actor in the drama and ignores President Trump’s offers to engage in dialogue with Iran. It also ignores Iran’s post-deal behavior — threatening Israel, supporting the butchery of the Syrian regime, funding a civil war in Yemen and plotting acts of terrorism on European soil.
European leaders need to abandon the “talk only” approach with Iran. Iran’s economy is crumbling under the weight of sanctions. As a result, Iran’s timeline is much shorter than that of Europe and the United States, and Europe should seize that advantage. A revised European strategy should include: initiating the process for imposing the U.N. “snap-back” sanctions based on Iran’s open breaches of the nuclear deal; blunt statements that they will not tolerate Iranian acts of aggression; and offers of support for proportionate U.S. countermeasures should Iran continue to engage in terrorism and violence or make a dash for a nuclear weapon.
This will send a clear message to Iran that the policy gap between Europe and the United States has closed. More importantly, standing firm now with the United States will enable better prospects for success if and when negotiations with Iran occur. It’s never easy to do, but Europe needs to admit its errors, swallow some pride and adopt an approach that demonstrates resolve.
• Matthew Heiman is a senior fellow and the associate director for global security at the National Security Institute at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School.