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Divergence Between Europe and US: An Opportunity for Iran

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Publish Date : 2018 Aug 20 11:52
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Donald Trump is the first US president who has questioned the principles and foundations of transatlantic alliances, which have been gradually formed or strengthened since the Second World War. Trump's actions have challenged at least three fundamental principles of the alliances involving countries on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean: the order based on the Western liberal democracy, globalization and free trade, and the Western collective security system (NATO).
Yaser Nooralivand

Donald Trump is the first US president who has questioned the principles and foundations of transatlantic alliances, which have been gradually formed or strengthened since the Second World War. Trump's actions have challenged at least three fundamental principles of the alliances involving countries on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean: the order based on the Western liberal democracy, globalization and free trade, and the Western collective security system (NATO). Within this framework, Trump admires authoritarian rulers and authoritarian systems instead of praising democracies and making efforts to strengthen the order based on Western liberal democracy, has emerged as the harshest critic of globalization and free trade thanks to his withdrawal from free trade agreements and pursuit of protectionism and economic nationalism and slapping trade tariffs, and has openly expressed doubt about the United States' security commitment to Europe and suggests that the era of NATO has come to an end. The adoption of such approaches by Trump has created an unprecedented gap and divergence between the US and Europe.
Reasons for divergence between Europe and the US
1. US unilateralism vs. Europe's multilateralism: Trump's presidency can be regarded as an era of the most extreme version of US unilateralism since the Second World War. Pulling out of the Paris climate agreement, abandoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership, withdrawing from UNESCO, relocating the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Beit-ul-Moqaddas despite strong opposition by the international community, quitting the Iran nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), imposing unilateral sanctions, leaving the United Nations Human Rights Council, waging a trade war against the main US allies through levying trade tariffs, and reports about US plans to get out of the World Trade Organization have made unilateralism a tenet of Trump's foreign policy. In Trump's view, the multilateralism pursued by his predecessor Barack Obama has eroded US global hegemony, undermined its superpower status and made the country's rivals stronger. In fact, the multilateral global governance has brought the United States down to the level of rival powers rather than it being in US national interests, which is not acceptable to him. But the European Union is an advocate of a multilateral world order based on international law, with international organizations, particularly the United Nations, at its heart. The EU maintains that only a multilateral order on the basis of international regulations, including the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, can guarantee peace and security in the international system. The Europeans consider Trump's unilateralism a disregard for the role of other powers in global issues and the undermining and ruining of all the achievements of the international community over the past several decades, which is very dangerous for global peace and security.  
2. US nationalism vs. Europe's internationalism: Trump regards nationalism and economic protectionism as the best way to serve national interests. So he has made no secret of his opposition to globalization, internationalism, and free trade. In this regard, Trump thinks of international bodies and regimes as a tangled web, which has not only ensnared the United States and tied its hands but also has shifted the balance of power and trade against the US and in favor of its rivals over the past decades. So, in his opinion, staying in these regimes and organizations means giving a free ride to other countries and continued rise in rivals' power. So the doctrine of withdrawing from international regimes and organizations and the policy of imposing tariffs on US imports are part of the Trump administration's major policies. But the European Union is basically an international entity. The nature of this union calls for marginalizing nationalism, breaking down borders, and freedom of action in trade of goods, investment, movement of people, and services. In fact, the underlying concept behind the theoretical foundation of the European Union is that the best way to serve countries' national interests is the removal of nationalistic barriers, promotion of international cooperation, increased divergence, and a focus on mutual interests. So the main reason behind Trump's opposition to the EU is his disagreement with the basic principles behind the formation of the bloc. This opposition is becoming stronger every day and has gone beyond rhetoric and verbal encouragement of European leaders to leave the EU and, as claimed by some news outlets, is now being combined with actions. For instance, Reuters has claimed that former Donald Trump political strategist Steve Bannon and a top associate have created a political organization intended to undermine, and ultimately paralyze, the European Union. The organization reportedly serves as a clearing house for the populist, nationalist, and anti-EU movement in Europe.
3. Disagreements within NATO: The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the largest military alliance in the world, is considered a symbol of the West's military and defensive unity and its most important and greatest deterrent against the enemies. However, Europe and the United States have always had disagreements about the organization's objectives and costs after the Cold War. The Europeans, based on a strict interpretation NATO's objectives and Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, regard defending the "security" of the member states against foreign threats as the organization's primary goal and are against NATO becoming a global policeman advancing US hegemony. In addition, most of the European members of NATO, based on previous agreements, are not ready or cannot afford to pay 2 percent of their gross domestic product or GDP to the alliance. On the other hand, the US believes in a broad interpretation of the NATO charter, which calls for defending the "interests" of the members beyond the organization's geographical borders. This would require the adoption of broader geographical criteria for membership of the North Atlantic alliance to include countries such as Japan and Australia and confront China. The US has also urged all NATO members to contribute their fair share for defense. Previous US presidents had ignored such disagreements and never allowed the organization's internal unity to be undermined by their differences of opinion. But it seems that Trump, unlike his predecessors, will not turn a blind eye to such issues and believes that continued spending by the US to maintain the Europeans' security without their full participation amounts to giving a free ride to them. In line with his criticisms of NATO, Trump recently said that NATO is "better for Europe than it is for us". Trump is the first US president who has challenged Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty and has suggested that US support for allies could be conditioned on their military spending. 
4. Difference in priorities and security objectives: The foreign and security policies of the European Union and the United States are no longer the same due to the change in their objectives and security priorities. In the age of bipolar world politics, the common threat from the Soviet Union had led to the convergence of their priorities and security objectives on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean and a very close relationship. Meanwhile, NATO had proved to be a very successful and efficient organization in deterring and responding to this common threat. However, the situation changed after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The common enemy gave its place to new and non-state threats and, accordingly, the effectiveness of NATO—an organization with a structure efficient in addressing classic threats—decreased to the extent that even a revision to its security agenda to make it compatible with the nature of the new threats failed to increase its effectiveness under the new circumstances. The role of Russia and the Middle East, as the two main sources of security threats to Europe, lost its significance in the US security strategy and, thanks to the rise of China, East Asia became the most important region in the US security strategy. Today, it is seen that the US approach is clearly divergent from that of the EU on both Russia and the Middle East.
Trump, unlike European allies of the US, not only does not regard Russia as his country's first and foremost threat but also is seeking détente and improvement in relations with the Kremlin under conditions where Russia has pursued the most expansionist approach in Eastern Europe (the issue of Ukraine and Crimea) and Western Asia (its involvement in Syria) since the fall of the Soviet Union. The cost of the United States' broad security presence in the region after the dissolution of the Soviet Union has been very high and the country's achievements have been limited. This has provided an opportunity for rival powers such as China to increase their power while the US is busy focusing on the region. Today, the US has narrowed its focus to the Persian Gulf sub-region, not because it is an oil-rich region but because China, its archrival, is heavily dependent on crude imports from the Persian Gulf. So security control over this region could give the US a trump card against China. The fact that the US possesses the technology for shale oil extraction has made the Middle East's oil reserves less significant for the country. However, energy security and prices are the driving factors behind its actions in the region. While the Middle East has become less important for the United States, its significance has increased for the European Union due to a slew of security threats to Europe originating in the region (particularly terrorism and the refugee crisis). Additionally, Europe, like China, depends on the Middle East for a large proportion of its oil supplies. The difference in the strategic priorities of Europe and the United States has led them to adopt different approaches toward regional issues.
5. Iran and the JCPOA: Since Iran's Islamic Revolution, Europe and the US have always adopted a united strategy but at times different approaches toward Iran. Their main and common strategy over these years has been aimed at "confronting and changing the behavior of the Islamic Republic of Iran". Their approaches range from confrontational policies to interaction, which have been similar with or different from each other's in various periods. For instance, both their strategies and approaches toward Iran were the same under the presidency of Obama, in which they pursued a combination of pressure tactics and interaction simultaneously, which eventually led to the conclusion of the Iran nuclear agreement. But it seems that they have adopted divergent strategies and approaches in Trump's era. Europe's strategy is still intended to make Iran change its behavior, while Trump's strategy fluctuates between pushing for a change in attitude and pursuing regime change. Europe is seeking to interact and cooperate with Iran based on the said strategy, while the US has chosen a policy of pressure and confrontation.
Unlike Obama, the Trump administration does not make a distinction between alleged threats posed by Iran and considers them an integrated web of threats, which needs to be dealt with at once and in a single package. He maintains that the JCPOA is an incomplete deal, which not only does not limit Iran's nuclear ambitions forever but also has put it in a more powerful position to pose other kinds of threats and has tilted the regional balance of power in its favor. In contrast to the Trump administration's holistic approach, the Europeans' agenda is to deal with alleged threats from Iran separately. European countries maintain that the JCPOA was the product of 12 years of diplomacy and a rare and successful diplomatic achievement in the field of nuclear non-proliferation, which, according to verification by the International Atomic Energy Agency, has worked well so far and has contributed greatly to regional and global stability and security through preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and transforming Iran from a so-called hostile player to an interactive actor. The Europeans believe it is imperative that they recognize Iran's role in preserving the regional balance of power and security. So they argue that the collapse of the nuclear deal and regime change in Iran would be very destabilizing and dangerous for the region and that Iran could be convinced to alter its attitude within the framework of international regulations through continued interaction based on the JCPOA and application of the same method used to achieve it to resolve other dispute issues.  
An opportunity for Iran
Europe has never had independent relations with Iran since the Islamic Revolution. The greatest obstacle in the path of expansion of Iran-Europe relationship has been acts of interference by the United States. However, there are other factors that have contributed to the not-so-good relations between the two sides. Their ties have been completely influenced by US hostility toward Iran and also the strategic unity between Europe and America. Although the Islamic Republic had at different stages tried to deal with Europe separately from the US under the "West minus the US" strategy, Europe's heavy security and economic dependence on the United States had led to its foreign and security policies being influenced by the US policy on Iran and prevented Iran-Europe relations from entering a new phase.
One of the significant implications of the developments cited in the previous section as reasons for transatlantic divergence has been a change in the status quo, which has made the role of US interference in relations between Iran and Europe less significant. It means that the divergence between Europe and the United States can lead Europe to adopt a more independent foreign policy on Iran. In the past, Europe and the United States' common security priorities and also America's all-out security support for Europe had caused the Europeans to coordinate their foreign policy with the Americans and follow theirs. Under such conditions, choosing between Iran and the US was a no-brainer for Europe. But today, the situation has changed. The change in the security priorities of Europe and the US and Trump's doubts about his country's security commitments to NATO and Europe has shaped divergent foreign and security policies on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean and has paved the ground for Europe to pursue a more independent strategy. The fact is that the security priorities of Trump's America regarding Russia, Iran, the JCPOA, and the crises in Western Asia and North Africa no longer address Europe's security concerns, and Trump looks at them merely from the perspective of American interests, and not common transatlantic interests. Today, Europe's security priority is to save the nuclear deal, continue interacting with Iran, avoid efforts aimed at regime change in Iran, and create a regional order that would encourage all powers in the region to cooperate. This is while the Trump administration's priorities have been pulling out of the JCPOA, confronting Iran, inciting regime change in the country, forming a coalition of regional Arab states to confront Iran, and shifting the regional balance of power in favor of US allies. Structural limitations have led analysts to describe Europe's move toward an independent strategy as a "treadmill policy"[1], but such branding does not negate Europe's efforts toward adopting an independent strategy. A continued change in the situation and a change in security priorities on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean can replace the treadmill with a real playing field.
The next issue is Europe's economic dependence on the United States. The issue of dependence is different than security matters and is more influenced by mutual reliance, but the re-imposition of sanctions against Iran and the dispute over customs tariffs clearly showed Europe that it is vulnerable in this area and will not be able to defend its interests against US unilateralism if it does not stand up for itself. That is why it has been trying to confront US sanctions against Iran through proposing a package to Tehran and stand against Trump's excessive demands through introducing reciprocal tariffs. Under the current circumstances, it does not matter greatly whether Europe can succeed in achieving its objectives or not. What is more important is that this historical juncture should be appreciated and the available opportunity should be used. The European Union is more than ever under pressure to defend its dignity, values, and interests and needs the cooperation of influential regional powers. The Islamic Republic of Iran is one of these regional powers, which, despite being a source of disagreement between Europe and the US, plays a very important role in serving Europe's economic and security interests and advancing the European agenda to become more independent. In fact, now could be the best time to implement the strategy of "West minus the US" because today, Iran and Europe have more common interests in the nuclear accord and regional security and Europe and the United States have spiraled into their worst relations in decades.

[1]- Drawing an analogy between Europe's efforts toward security and strategic independence and running on a treadmill is meant to suggest that Europe is working hard but is not making any progress.

“ Divergence Between Europe and US: An Opportunity for Iran ”