Brexiteers in Britain are denouncing the EU as an all-powerful behemoth from whose clutches Britain must escape, just as the organisation is demonstrating its failure to become more than a second-rate world power.
The EU’s real status – well behind the US, Russia and China – has just been demonstrated by its inability to protect Iran from US sanctions following President Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal of 2015. A year ago, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron made humiliating visits to Washington to plead vainly with Trump to stay with the agreement, but were rebuffed.
Since then the US has successfully ratcheted up economic pressure on Iran, reducing its oil exports from 2.8 to 1.3 million barrels a day. The UK, France and Germany had promised to create a financial vehicle to circumvent US sanctions, but their efforts have been symbolic. Commercial enterprises are, in any case, too frightened of the ire of the US treasury to take advantage of such measures.
Iranian president Hassan Rouhani said on Wednesday that Iran would stop complying with parts of the nuclear deal unless the Europeans provided the promised protection for the oil trade and banks. Everybody admits that Iran is in compliance but this is not going to do it any good.
These are the latest moves in the complex political chess game between the US and Iran which has been going on since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979. It is this conflict – and not the US-China confrontation over trade, which has just dramatically escalated – which will most likely define any new balance of power in the world established during the Trump era. It is so important because – unlike the US-China dispute – the options include the realistic possibility of regime change and war.
The Europeans have proved to be marginal players when it comes to the Iran deal and it was never likely that they would spend much more diplomatic capital defending it once the US had withdrawn. In the long term, they also want regime change in Tehran, though they oppose Trump’s methods of obtaining it as reckless. Nevertheless, the contemptuous ease with which Trump capsized the agreement shows how little he cares what EU leaders say or do.
The Europeans will be spectators in the escalating US-Iran conflict. The US potential is great when it comes to throttling the Iranian economy. Iranian oil exports are disappearing, inflation is at 40 per cent and the IMF predicts a 6 per cent contraction in the economy as a whole. The US can punish banks dealing with Iran everywhere, including countries where Iran is politically strong such as Iraq and Lebanon.
Tehran does not have many effective economic countermeasures against the US assault, other than to try to out-wait the Trump era. Caution has worked well for Iran in the past. After 2003, Iranians used to joke that God must be on their side because why else would the US have overthrown Iran’s two deeply hostile neighbours – the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
Many Iranian leaders appear confident that they can survive anything Trump can throw at them other than a full-scale shooting war. Past precedent suggests they’re right: in the wars in Lebanon after the Israeli invasion of 1982, Iran came out on top and helped created Hezbollah as the single most powerful political and military force in the country. Likewise, after the US/UK invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran undermined their occupation and saw a Shia-led government sympathetic to its interests hold power in Baghdad. In Syria after 2011, Iranian support was crucial in keeping its ally Bashar al-Assad in control.
Iran was on the winning side in these conflicts in part because of mistakes made by its opponents, but these will not inevitably happen again. Because the media and much of the political establishment in Washington and western capitals are so viscerally anti-Trump, they frequently underestimate the effectiveness of his reliance on American economic might while avoiding military conflict. At the end of the day, the US Treasury is a more powerful instrument of foreign policy than the Pentagon for all its aircraft carriers and drones.
Trump may not read briefing papers, but he often has a better instinct for the realities of power than the neo-conservative hawks in his administration who learned little from the Iraq war which they helped foment.
So long as Trump sticks with sanctions he is in a strong position, but if the crisis with Iran becomes militarised then the prospects for the US become less predictable. Neither Tehran nor Washington want war, but that does not mean they will not get one. Conflicts in this part of the Middle East are particularly uncontrollable because there are so many different players with contrary interests.
This divergence produces lots of wild cards: Trump is backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but these oil states have had a dismal record of operational incapacity in Syria and Yemen.
The Iranians, for their part, have had their successes where their fellow Shia are the majority (Iraq), the largest community (Lebanon) or are in control of government (Syria). Given that they are a Shia clerical regime, it is always difficult for them to extend their influence beyond the Shia core areas.
Benjamin Netanyahu has led the charge in demonising Iran and encouraging the US to see it as the source of all evil in the Middle East. But Netanyahu’s belligerent rhetoric against Iran has hitherto been accompanied with caution in shifting to military action, except against defenceless Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.
A danger is that a permanent cold or hot war between Washington and Tehran will become the vehicle for other conflicts that have little to do with it. These would include the escalating competition between Saudi Arabia and Turkey over the leadership of the Sunni world. Turkey’s independent role would be threatened by an enhancement of US power in the region. So too would Russia which has re-established its status as a global power since 2011 by its successful military support for Assad in Syria.
Trump hopes to force Tehran to negotiate a Carthaginian peace – particularly useful if this happens before the next US presidential election – under which Iran ceases to be a regional power. Regime change would be the optimum achievement for Trump, but is probably unattainable.
If Trump sticks to economic war it will be very difficult for Iran to counter him, but in any other scenario the US position becomes more vulnerable. There is an impressive casualty list of British and US leaders – three British prime ministers and three US presidents – over the last century who have suffered severe or fatal political damage in the Middle East. Trump will be lucky if he escapes the same fate.