Europe is wrong about Iran


Trade underpins world peace. However by the same token, the lack of trade, thanks to punitive sanctions, can play an equally important role in supporting peace. The European ought to understand this as well as anyone. White rule in South Africa was brought to an end by international sanctions. Boosted UN sanctions on North Korea have at the very least made the Pyongyang regime of Kim Jong-un sit up and take notice of demands that it abandon its nuclear weapons.

And crushing sanctions also brought Iran’s ayatollahs to the negotiating table. From 2012 to 2016 the country lost over $160 billion in oil sales besides billions more in other blocked exports. The worldwide suspension of trade with Tehran brought the economy to its knees. Popular protests focused not simply on the hardship, a direct consequence of the regime’s drive to acquire nuclear weapons, but also the incompetence and venality of the ruling elite and their Praetorian protectors the Revolutionary Guards.

The Geneva P5+1 talks with China, France, Russia, the US and UK, plus Germany were the opportunity to oblige the ayatollahs, not simply to give up their plans for a nuclear arsenal but also to compel them to end their malign meddling in the affairs of their neighbors in the Arab world. The talks began in 2006 and were spun out by the Iranians in a masterclass in diplomacy. Nine years later, delegates exhausted by last minute delays to a final signature, inked a deal which turned out to be hardly worth the paper on which it was written.

President Barack Obama’s single foreign policy victory quickly proved to be almost entirely hollow. The lifting of sanctions also released $100 billion of Iranian assets frozen in banks around the world. These were quickly moved to countries, including China and Russia, less likely to follow future US-led sanctions. Though Tehran has gone some way to permit the international inspections of its nuclear program, there are credible suspicions that the nuclear weaponization work continues in secret and besides, this research is only suspended for 15 years. In 2030, the ayatollahs could openly boast of their deadly arsenal and the rocketry to deliver it. Even more importantly, the Geneva deal omitted any Iranian commitment to cease its dangerous attempts to undermine its Arab neighbors.

President Donald Trump was entirely right to tear up the Geneva deal. He doubtless saw that, if it had been an effective agreement, it would not have been supported by Moscow and Beijing. Indeed both the Russians and Chinese seem set to block any UN-led reimposition of sanctions and will probably ignore, as much as they dare, Trump’s new Iranian economic blockade. The position of the Europeans is, however, as ambiguous as it is discreditable. They lauded the Geneva deal more for the return of lucrative trading opportunities than its effectiveness in bringing Middle Eastern peace. Now Washington has told them very clearly they cannot be exempted from the reimposition of sanctions. It is amazing that the British, French and Germans have requested such a European exemption, which would render the new blockade entirely useless.

Perhaps they calculate that the Chinese, Iran’s biggest oil customer, will step in and win the big deals that they want. But the reality is, however, that by trying to put profit before peace, the European powers are behaving discreditably and dangerously.