Commentary on Political Economy

Friday, 21 August 2020



Europe Picks the Greater Evil in UN Iran Sanctions Vote

In the name of multilateralism, France, Germany and the U.K. have made the world a less safe place.

No sale.
No sale. Photographer: Mike Segar/AFP via Getty Images

Like a schoolyard bully faced down by those he used to torment, Mike Pompeo went into a sulk. The Secretary of State said America’s European allies “chose to side with the ayatollahs” by rejecting his attempt to force the reimposition — or “snapback” — of United Nations sanctions on Iran.

Pompeo’s petulance didn’t end there. Germany, France and Britain had put their own citizens at risk, he said. But the U.S. wouldn’t “join in this failure of leadership,” he added. “America will not appease, America will lead.” It was the diplomatic equivalent of the defeated bully shaking his fists and vowing, “I’ll show you all.”

The failure of leadership is mostly American. The Trump administration’s double humiliation in the UN — Thursday’s snub from the Europeans came only days after the failure to extend an arms embargo on the Islamic Republic — was, as I have argued, mostly self-inflicted.

It was also entirely predictable: The European signatories of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran had made it clear months ago that they would not support an American attempt to invoke the snapback of sanctions. They claimed this was because the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran outweighed all other considerations, including Pompeo’s crude effort at blackmail, the threat of a 25% tariff on European automobiles.

But the Europeans have failed, too. For all the schadenfreude in Berlin, Paris and London this weekend, they chose the greater of two evils in siding with the Iranian bully over the American one.

Germany, France and Britain, known collectively as E3, said in a statement they were “preserving the processes and institutions which constitute the foundation of multilateralism.” That is to miss the wood for the trees. The institutions they claim to be defending are meant to make the world a safer place. Yet despite concurring that giving Iran access to more sophisticated weapons will make the world less safe, the E3 in effect voted to do just that.

This could have gone another way. The Europeans might have thrown their weight behind the American proposal to extend the arms embargo. At the very least, they might have dragged out the snapback discussion, letting the theocrats in Tehran sweat a little. The Trump administration may not value the symbolic power of a united Western front against tyranny, but the E3 should.

Instead, in their haste to punish Trump’s reckless disregard for international norms, they have recklessly disregarded the wellbeing of tens of millions in the Middle East for whom the Islamic Republic represents a clear and constant danger. Iranians, the regime’s longest-suffering victims, make up the largest proportion of those millions. Their Arab neighbors, from Syria and Iraq to those on the opposite shore of the Persian Gulf, are more menaced today than they were yesterday.

The E3 decision will comfort not only Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, but also his many agents of mayhem: the dictator Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah, the leaders of Hamas, the commanders of Shiite militias in Iraq and the Houthis in Yemen. In turn, Arab rulers will use the Iranian bogeyman, now more frightening, to reinforce their autocratic regimes.

Perhaps Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Boris Johnson will be abashed by the toasts raised in their direction by this gang of mass murderers, who can now look forward to more money and weapons from Tehran. They may also want to duck the shameful pats on the back from Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, who can look forward to selling Iran jet fighters, tanks and missiles. Of course, such pangs of European conscience may well be assuaged by the prospect of billions of dollars in business deals with the Islamic Republic.

The E3 may yet discover that the bully they bested at the UN has some punches left to land. The threat of American unilateral sanctions will deny the Europeans any remuneration for selling out the millions menaced by Iran. The E3 must now hope Trump loses on Nov. 3, and that a Biden administration looks more kindly on their eagerness to trade with the theocrats in Tehran. Until then, schadenfreude will have to suffice.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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