Daniel DePetris

Why relations between the EU and US are about to get worse

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If you thought the last two years of transatlantic relations were bad, things are about to get even worse. Donald Trump and his hard-charging secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, have scheduled a Middle East security conference for February 13th and 14th. Poland, perhaps the only country in Europe that looks fondly upon Trump as a world leader, will be hosting the two-day affair. Normally, this is the kind of multilateral event European heads-of-state are more than happy to participate in. Not so this one. Trump plan to elevate Iran’s destabilising actions in the region as a principle – perhaps the principle – topic during the conference is giving senior European officials cold feet about turning up. Many see, perhaps rightly, a diplomatic charade instigated by Washington and an attempt to further undermine an Iranian nuclear agreement barely treading water after its third anniversary. Other European diplomats see the choice of Poland as the host country as an attempt by the White House to chip away at the European Union’s unified support of the deal. EU foreign affairs commissioner Federica Mogherini has already said she won't be there. The French foreign minister may stay away from the event. And Britain and Germany are reportedly in a fix about who will fly to Warsaw.

So why the growing split between the EU and US over Iran? It’s not that the EU sympathises with the mullahs, of course. Far from it; Brussels has been busy cracking down on the Iranian government in recent weeks. The European Council unanimously agreed earlier this month to freeze the assets of two Iranians and the internal security department of the Iranian ministry of intelligence for a series of assassination plots against dissidents on Western European soil. This week, Iran’s Mahan Airlines was banned from landing on German soil. European officials are beginning to get impatient with Tehran’s conduct, whether it includes alleged plans to target a dissident Iranian rally in Paris or continued ballistic missile tests. The conversations between EU and Iranian diplomats behind closed doors have become more strident; this week, Iranian officials stormed out of a meeting with European envoys.

Yet despite all these problems, the EU remains committed to an Iran nuclear deal that has provided inspectors with the best access inside of Tehran’s nuclear infrastructure the world has ever had. Mindful of this, Theresa May, Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel and the rest of the EU don’t want to make any moves that will convince supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that Europe is preparing to step away from their obligations and sever commercial ties. In less than a year, Washington’s unilateral sanctions regime has already taken 900,000 barrels of Iranian oil off the market each day as foreign suppliers pull out of joint projects with Iranian entities rather than risk the wrath of the US Treasury Department. The EU finds itself between a rock and a hard place; while they would like to maintain Iran’s compliance to a deal they all support, they also don’t want to add any more acrimony to the relationship with Trump.

So what's the solution for the EU? The special payments vehicle, a financial channel the EU has been working on to preserve at least some legitimate business with Iran, will apparently be operational in weeks. The Germans, French, and British are all in, even if the Americans are livid about their three closest European allies trying to deflate Washington’s pressure strategy. Trump's administration is making no secret of its anger: when the SPV was launched last year, national security adviser John Bolton’s rhetoric was more militant than usual. “We do not intend to allow our sanctions to be evaded by Europe or anybody else,” Bolton warned – a remarkable threat from one ally to another. Pompeo practically accused Europe of financing Iranian-sponsored terrorism, calling the SPV “one of the most counterproductive measures imaginable for regional and global peace and security.”

Trump and the EU are staring each other down, and it doesn’t look like either side is willing to cede ground. Next month’s meetings in Poland will raise the stakes to the highest they have ever been since this diplomatic game of chicken began. What was once a strong difference of opinion on policy is quickly becoming a contest of wills.