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Europe Ununited

Over US President Trump's Policy On Iran

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Cornella Meyer :
There seems to be no limit to how far tensions in the Arabian Gulf can escalate. Over the last two months, ships have been sabotaged, US and Iranian drones shot down, and Saudi Aramco's east-west pipeline attacked by drones. This all culminated in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps confiscating the oil tanker Stena Impero, which was sailing under the British flag. This was in direct response to the Royal Navy having taken into custody the Iranian Grace 1 off the coast of Gibraltar on the suspicion that is was transporting oil to Syria in violation of EU sanctions against the war-torn country.
The Stena Impero incident got everybody's attention because the Strait of Hormuz is a critical waterway, with 20 percent of global oil production passing through it. The big economies in the East - China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan - in particular depend on oil production in the Arabian Gulf.
Europe has always been at loggerheads with US President Donald Trump's policy of maximum pressure on Iran, which he applied after he unilaterally withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal last year. The sanctions started to really bite after the US withdrew the waivers from oil sanctions it had granted to eight countries. Europe's attitude to Iran is different from the US. It is near neighbors to the Middle East and its conflicts, and is directly impacted by the waves of refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. The last thing European countries therefore want is yet another armed conflict in the Middle East and yet more refugees. This and the desire to adhere to international agreements once they are ratified is the backdrop of the events that have unfolded over the last few months.
Norbert Roettgen, the head of the German Bundestag's Committee on Foreign Affairs, has argued for some time that the UK, France and Germany should cooperate on foreign policy, particularly when it comes to Iran. On the face of it that would make sense, but it is not as easy as it sounds. The UK is about to leave the EU and France and Germany don't quite see eye to eye when it comes to the future direction of the institution. The last weeks have clearly shown how European attitudes to Iran diverge.
Last weekend, the remaining signatories of the JCPOA - the UK, Germany, France, Russia, China and the EU - held a conference in Vienna to discuss what it would take to salvage the agreement.
As of last month, Iran had violated the nuclear deal by surpassing the agreed uranium stockpile and enrichment limits, which was verified by the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency. While this is bad news, the Islamic Republic has not yet crossed the red lines sufficiently to have reached the point of no return, according to some experts. The Europeans urged Iran to return to full compliance of the JCPOA. Iran seems open to full inspection.
The meetings in Vienna took place at the vice-ministerial level and were said to be constructive. They will be followed by a ministerial gathering. Iran is eager to find ways of keeping its stuttering economy ticking over and urged the European participants to look into exploring barter trade. China takes a less stringent view when it comes to trading with Iran. Many of its companies have little dealing with the US, as was the case with Zhuhai Zhenrong, an oil trader with links to the Chinese military. China condemned the US for issuing sanctions against the company. Beijing's attitude also has to be seen in the context of the US-China trade dispute. It is possible China will take a firmer view on the US' sanctions on Iran once it has reached a trade agreement with Washington.
As for Europe, the situation is complex. Ideally, the European signatories of the JCPOA would like to resurrect the agreement. However, the capture of the Stena Impero has clouded the picture. Europeans see the need for a military escort of their commercial ships through the Strait of Hormuz. While they may not agree with Trump's policy of maximum pressure, securing the waterway has prime importance for many.
When he was foreign secretary, Boris Johnson made a trip to Washington to try and convince the president to remain in the JCPOA. But that was then. Now he wants to achieve Brexit "do or die" by Oct. 31 and therefore needs Trump as an ally. He has steered away from the recently replaced Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt's attempt to have a European naval alliance escorting European commercial vessels through the strait in order to avoid the policy of maximum pressure. The UK has now asked for a meeting between the US, France and Britain to discuss cooperation. The US has by far the most naval firepower in the region, as its Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain.
The Pentagon issued a request to Germany for it to join its European and American allies, but Berlin has declined. For one, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which governs in coalition with the Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union, is against it. The coalition is already on tenuous footing without added foreign policy pressure. Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, of the SPD, questioned the wisdom of getting militarily involved in a region that could see further armed conflict down the road. The German constitution also imposes more stringent peacetime limitations than those of its European counterparts, limiting the options for when the country's armed forces can get involved abroad. Lastly, it is the explicit policy of Germany to try and resurrect the JCPOA.
The Islamic Republic, the Stena Impero incident and the US policy of maximum pressure against Iran demonstrate that achieving a coordinated foreign policy in Europe may not be as easy as it looks.
(Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert, writes for Arab News;Twitter: @MeyerResources)

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