After Trump’s Iran decision: Time for Europe to step up

Six steps for the EU and its member states to save the nuclear agreement with Iran 

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Despite months of E3-US negotiations to avert an unnecessary crisis over the Iran nuclear deal, President Trump has declared a hard exit from the nuclear agreement. The decision demonstrates that the US has decided that confrontation with Iran is both necessary and inevitable, regardless of what European allies think. The US administration looks set to increase tensions with Tehran and promote an implosion of Iran’s economy in ways that significantly increase risks of greater military escalation in the Middle East. Moreover, in the coming weeks, United States looks set to lead an economic and political assault on European interests.  

The E3 should now acknowledge that its negotiating tactic of accommodation and comprise with Trump has failed. If Europe is to have any influence forthcoming US policy on Iran, European governments should quickly shift tack, unifying behind a more assertive diplomatic strategy aimed at deterring the worst-case scenario of renewed Iranian nuclear program and more instability and violence in a region close to its borders. 

European governments are clearly tempted to think that the delays in implementation of sanctions mean they still have time to persuade the US president to reverse course. But the US president has acted on his promise to fully withdraw from the deal. He is now supported in that view by key advisors who have long advocated a forceful stand against Iran, not just on the nuclear deal but also in terms of encouraging regime change in Iran. It should now be abundantly clear that the current US administration cannot be a partner in salvaging the deal.

In this context the EU and its member states should now prioritize the following action points:

  1. European leaders should use the forthcoming May 17 European Council meeting in Sofia to publicly and unanimously condemn the U.S. decision  to withdraw from a multilateral global security arrangement and place the responsibility for any instability that results on the Trump administration.
  2. European leaders should reject further negotiation between the E3 and the US administration on a “broader framework” on Iran policy, including the prospect of further EU sanctions targeting Iran, until and unless the Trump administration makes significant adjustments to minimise the enforcement of US secondary sanctions targeting European companies doing business with Iran.
  3. European governments should prioritise measures aimed at maintaining Iranian adherence to the deal. The E3/EU should meet with Iranian counterparts at foreign ministerial level to agree on contingency plans. European governments should make a case to the Iranian government and public as to why the deal can be sustained and continue to serve Iran’s interest. This should emphasise the immediate economic benefits of continued oil exports (which Europe must vow to maintain as an priority). In this effort to entice Iran, Europe should cooperate with Russia and China, the other parties to the nuclear deal.
  4. Europe’s approach should include the formulation of clear legal conditions for strategic sectors of trade with Iran aimed at protecting key European commercial deals seen as barometers of nuclear deal’s success and its ongoing survival (namely in the energy domain, aviation and automotive industries). The E3/EU should prioritise securing exemptions and waivers from enforcement of US secondary sanctions for European energy companies and related financial services to allow continued oil imports from and payments to Iran. Towards this end, EU member states should begin consultations regarding counter-measures against the United States. This should include political and legal threats that the EU will consider reviving the EU Blocking Regulation and even impose new penalties against assets of US companies based in Europe to allow for “claw-back” of unfair and illegal fines imposed on European companies doing business with Iran. European leaders should press this issue very hard with the Trump administration, making clear that this is a critical issue for the transatlantic relationship, as well as ongoing cooperation on regional issues in the Middle East.
  5. European governments should also look to find bridging solutions to maintain banking connections with Iran even if at far reduced levels, including by temporarily connecting respective central banks in EU member states to the Central Bank of Iran and creating emergency exp0rt credit lines. The EU EAS should accelerate coordination among leading member states, their export credit agencies and state-owned banks to devise novel banking mechanisms allowing a degree of risk-sharing between governments and the financial sector on business with Iran. This effort should aim to facilitate a pan-European approach towards creating special purpose vehicles to finance sector-specific trade and investment with Iran. The EU EEAS should also advance existing proposals for the European Investment Bank to become a lending bank for long-term and medium-sized investments inside Iran.
  6. It will now be more critical than ever for Europeans to maintain a dialogue with Iran on regional and ballistic missile issues, given that the US exit from the nuclear deal is already feeding wider regional escalation. This is particularly true given that the Trump administration is likely to work with its key regional allies to accompany the nuclear agreement withdrawal with a wider push against Iran. Germany, France, the UK and Italy should accelerate and formalise recently launched regional talks with Iran, including efforts to advance de-escalation possibilities between Iran and Israel in Syria where the situation is becoming increasingly febrile.

In the end, Europe may not be capable of salvaging the nuclear deal. But if the Europeans want to promote non-proliferation in the region and reduce regional instability, they need to demonstrate to the Americans, the Iranians and others that they are willing to try. Allowing the collapse of the nuclear deal without a proper fight will have immediate and disastrous consequences in the Middle East, while also significantly reducing European relevance on global security. Europe faces a critical and historic choice and must demonstrate its political will to advance its security interests through robust diplomacy.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Deputy Director, Middle East and North Africa programme
Senior Policy Fellow

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