May 16, 2018

IntelBrief: The U.S. as the Outsider 

a meeting of the foreign ministers from Britain, France and Germany with the Iran Foreign Minister and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, at the Europa building in Brussels, Tuesday, May 15, 2018. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys, Pool)
  • On May 15, the foreign ministers of Iran, Germany, France, and the U.K. met in Brussels to attempt to salvage the multilateral nuclear agreement.
  • After walking away from the agreement, the U.S. is now threatening sanctions against European companies that continue dealings with Iran allowed under the agreement.
  • As is the case in almost all foreign policy matters—to include responses to terrorism—the U.S. is removing itself from multilateral, consensus-based negotiations.
  • It remains to be seen how far the U.S. will push its allies into adopting its preferred bi-lateral approach to multilateral challenges.


The frustration of European countries with the United States is at historic highs, as Washington threatens sanctions against European companies that continue to do business with Iran after the U.S. reneged on its participation in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The issue is far larger than a significant difference of opinion on the merits of the JCPOA—with the U.S. saying that no agreement is better than the JCPOA, and with the other signatories saying it is the best way to address concerns about Iran’s nuclear weapons development. The U.S.’ decision to withdraw, made in the face of serious opposition from its closest allies, is the latest and most direct signal that the Trump administration sees little to no value in continuing the post-World War II world order. While the European Union and others believe that global challenges like mass migration, persistent war, and climate change require an even more collaborative approach, the U.S. is becoming more insular.

The U.S. has been anything but diplomatic in the aftermath of leaving the JCPOA. Its vision of how best to ‘contain’ Iran goes beyond severing economic relations and returning to the 1979-2015 approach that crippled Iran economically but did little to curb its nuclear weapons capabilities. The U.S. wants the rest of the world to adopt its mandates. On May 13, National Security Advisor John Bolton said on CNN that the U.S. is considering imposing sanctions not just on Iran but on European companies that are now engaged in Iran’s energy and aviation sectors. Bolton stated the administration believed that ‘the Europeans will see that it’s in their interests to come along with us.’ On May 15 the Iranian, German, British, and French foreign ministers met in Brussels to try to salvage the agreement. On May 16, top officials from all 28 E.U. countries will meet in Sofia, Bulgaria, to address rising concerns over the U.S.’ putative actions towards the E.U. regarding both the JCPOA, as well on steel and aluminum tariffs.

The tension between the U.S. and European countries, already high, is economic as well philosophical. French companies have signed multi-billion dollar deals with Iran, as have German companies; these deals will have to be scrapped as per Washington’s wishes or the companies will face significant sanctions. European leaders answer to their constituents just as American politicians do; the loss of billions of dollars in economic growth to appease the Trump administration is not an easy policy to sell.

Yet the philosophical tensions are equally significant—perhaps more so. The U.S. is demanding others follow its path—even after being lobbied, unsuccessfully, by these same allies to consider their position on the deal. There is now almost no issue in which the U.S. is seeking a true multilateral, consensus-based approach for the common good. The divide between the U.S. and the rest of the globe, which has been ruled by a world order the U.S. helped create and lead, will only continue to grow.


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