BRUSSELS – As tensions between Washington and Tehran escalate, European leaders find themselves in an uncomfortable place they have feared ever since President Donald Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal 13 months ago and restored punishing sanctions against Tehran.
While the Europeans want to preserve the deal — which they see as important for their own security and for the stability of the Middle East — they are basically powerless in the face of U.S. military and financial clout.
Iran is calling on Europe to solve its economic problems brought on by the sanctions or face a collapse of the nuclear deal as Iran begins to exceed limits on uranium enrichment. But Washington wants the Europeans to join in pressing Iran to enter humiliating new negotiations to shut down Tehran’s nuclear program entirely, limit its missile programs and restrict its regional ambitions.
The last thing the Europeans want is to declare Iran out of compliance. That would kill the deal and be deeply distressing for a continent already in conflict with the Trump administration over trade, climate change, military spending and multilateralism generally.
So, caught in the middle, the Europeans have been reduced to calling for restraint and de-escalation while both Washington and Tehran seem set on raising tensions.
Iran is threatening to surpass a limit on its stockpiling of enriched uranium in the next several days and to start enriching that uranium to higher levels on July 7 if the Europeans do not grant relief from sanctions. The Europeans deeply resent the pressure but are nonetheless racing to finally get a weak barter system in place to allow at least some trade with Iran.
But the barter mechanism, known as INSTEX, will not give Iran what it wants.
It is designed for humanitarian goods and supplies, which are not covered by the sanctions in any case. And there is no indication that any major European company will risk coming under U.S. sanctions for a bit of barter trade with Iran.
“The Europeans very clearly are not going to deliver on the economic front,” said Jeremy Shapiro, a former State Department official now with the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Even if they manage to get INSTEX functioning, after trying for a year, it won’t do for the Iranians what they want it to do,” which is to make up for U.S. sanctions.
The Europeans are stuck in the middle, said Guillaume Xavier-Bender, an Iran analyst with the German Marshall Fund in Brussels, “and it’s unfortunate, since they initiated the deal in the first place.”
But, he added, “they believe so much in the value of the deal, it’s difficult for them to think a bit outside it.”
Instead of concentrating their diplomatic efforts on the current danger, which is not a nuclear-armed Iran but a conflict by accident or design in the Middle East, “Europeans are focusing on the deal and trying to find crazy creative financial initiatives to keep it alive, but it won’t be enough.”
Iran felt it was not getting what it was promised economically from the deal even before Trump pulled out and reimposed sanctions. Now, the situation is much worse, with Iran’s economy in a deep recession and great pressure on those who negotiated the deal to retain power and influence with the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Still, European officials say that the attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, which many privately accept are the responsibility of Tehran, were carefully judged messages of impatience and even pleas for help from an Iran that is suffering badly from the sanctions.
“I think Iran has made a response, and not a particularly radical or extreme response, to what it sees as U.S. escalation in the Gulf,” said Nathalie Tocci, an adviser to the European foreign-policy chief, Federica Mogherini. “The European role should be to attempt to reverse this vicious cycle and ensure that Iran sees an interest in living up to its side of the bargain even with the U.S. violating it.”