European partners try — and fail — to pass new Iran sanctions to appease Trump

The attempt came after President Donald Trump threatened to pull out of the deal unless the European partners "fix" it.

(CREDIT: Carlos Barria/AFP/Getty Images)
(CREDIT: Carlos Barria/AFP/Getty Images)

The European partners in the Iran nuclear deal are worried that President Donald Trump is about to tear up the deal — so worried, in fact, that on Wednesday night, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom tried to push through new sanctions against Iran to appease him.

But, Reuters reports, the tactic did not work because Spain, Italy, and Austria pushed back against the measures, which included travel bans and freezing of assets belonging to individuals and entities linked to Iran’s already-sanctioned ballistic missile program.

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The sanctions, of course, would hurt Iran at a very crucial point in its economic recovery. And it’s unknown if they would be enough for Trump to consider the deal worth saving.

“The European United really is not that united,” said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, professor of political science at Syracuse University. “So countries such as Italy, Spain, and Austria, which are certainly more concerned about their economic ties with Iran are making the argument that ‘Look, this is not going to be sufficient for Trump, no matter what we do.'”

One compelling economic interest for Europeans to avoid more sanctions on Iran is the fear that E.U. countries will lose long-term market shares in Iran.

“More sanctions will make Iran’s economy more of a hostage to the Chinese, because that’s the country that is willing to fill the gap and provide Iran what it needs,” said Boroujerdi.

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He said it’s still possible for the European partners and Iran to stick with the deal, even without the United States.

“It doesn’t really make much sense for Iran to leave the deal and return to the good old, bad days of the past,” he said, adding that the administration of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani doesn’t have much of an appetite for any kind of tit-for-tat confrontation.

The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — more commonly known as the Iran deal — was signed by Iran, the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and Germany, offering sanctions relief in exchange for limiting the scope of Iran’s nuclear program.

Iran has insisted that its nuclear program has always been intended for energy and research purposes, and submits to regular, rigorous inspections by the United Nation’s nuclear watchdog agency, the IAEA, to ensure that it stays within mandated parameters.

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But President Trump has been determined to kill the agreement he calls “the worst deal ever.” In October, he refused to recertify the deal (as required, under U.S. law, every 90 days). In January, when he extended sanctions relief, he added that it would be the last time he’d do so, unless the European partners in the JCPOA “fixed” the deal.

He then appointed two men who have expressed a visceral dislike of the deal into key positions in his administration — Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State (pending Senate approval) and John Bolton as National Security Advisor (no approval required). Both men have advocated bombing Iran.

All of the other signatories to the deal still support it, including the European partners. But as the May deadline for extending sanctions relief nears — with Iran expressing a reluctance to stay in the deal if the U.S. pulls out, and with the appointment of Bolton and Pompeo — there’s added pressure in Europe to save the deal.

“There was a commando approach, but it failed. The difference here is that everyone thinks Trump will pull out (of the Iran deal) and so some consider this pointless,” one E.U. diplomat told Reuters.

“They have a pretty solid case that regardless of what they do, Trump is going to leave that deal,” said Boroujerdi. But, he said, logic dictates that the Europeans have a plan A and a plan B.

“After all, what are they going to get if they too leave the nuclear deal and are then confronted by this bunch of extremists in the White House, who might not just satisfied with leaving the deal, but might be advocating for more confrontational policies with Iran?” he said.