Ally Angst: Why America's Iran Policy Doesn't Have International Support
European allies are grappling with mounting disagreements over foreign policy and growing irritated with Washington’s arrogant leadership style.
Washington’s NATO allies are openly balking at the Trump administration’s increasingly belligerent policy toward Iran. Even the British government, which can normally be counted upon to be a loyal U.S. junior partner during international crises, has shown no enthusiasm for the latest confrontation. In a small but symbolic gesture, Spain has now pulled a warship it had contributed to a U.S.-led naval group in the Persian Gulf that was there ostensibly to mark a historic seafaring anniversary. Spanish officials noted that the mission now seemed focused on alleged threats from Iran. Acting Defense Minister Margarita Robles stated tartly that the U.S. government “has taken a decision outside of the framework of what had been agreed with the Spanish Navy.”
Other NATO governments are uneasy about Washington’s decision to deploy B-52 bombers and take other steps in response to Israeli-provided intelligence that Tehran was planning attacks on U.S. forces in the Middle East. The Trump administration’s latest move has brought simmering U.S.-European disagreements about Iran policy to a boil. Washington’s withdrawal last year from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) regarding Tehran’s nuclear program generated noticeable pushback from the other signatories to the agreement, including Britain, France, and Germany. All three countries made it clear that they would not follow the United States in reimposing economic sanctions on Tehran. Indeed, they and other European Union (EU) members openly sought ways that they could cushion Iran (and their own businesses) from the worst effects of the U.S. action.
The allies were annoyed again this year when the administration continued to insist that the European signatories withdraw from the JCPOA. Germany and other countries flatly refused. Last month, Washington exacerbated already serious transatlantic frictions when it eliminated some of the boycott waivers it had granted to EU firms. Allied governments sharply criticized that step and Washington’s other moves to tighten sanctions. Iran soon stated that it would no longer abide by some JCPOA provisions and would resume enriching uranium. News about the Israeli intelligence report about planned Iranian attacks broke at roughly the same time, heightening the crisis atmosphere.
European leaders are clearly not pleased by Washington’s increasingly confrontational policy toward Iran. When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a surprise visit to Brussels in early May as EU foreign ministers met to discuss the escalating crisis about the Iran nuclear agreement, his reception was midpoint between cool and frigid. The European officials seemed offended both by Pompeo’s arrogance in just dropping in on such a gathering without notice and by the pressure he exerted on them to endorse Washington’s position.
Iran may be the wedge issue for European discontent with U.S. foreign policy, but it is hardly the only source. Vice President Mike Pence received a similarly chilly, resentful response in February when he spoke at the annual Munich Security Conference. Pence rebuked the European governments for their mildly conciliatory policy positions toward Iran and Venezuela. But he went beyond those two issues to criticize them for allegedly being overly eager to work with Russia. Although the Western allies have seemed to be generally on the same page since then about policy toward Venezuela, the transatlantic policy split regarding Iran and Russia has grown more pronounced.
If the United States is headed to war against Iran, then the Trump administration may find that its major NATO allies might be even less cooperative than they were regarding the 2003 Iraq War. Even on that occasion, several key allies, especially Germany and Turkey, clearly believed that Washington’s push for a military intervention was unwise and had the potential to create even greater instability in the Middle East. Their apprehension proved to be warranted, and they suspect that a war against Iran has even greater potential for that outcome. Tehran maintains close ties with Shiite factions throughout the region, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, well-armed militias in Iraq, and the opposition movement in Bahrain. Those Iranian allies and clients could cause serious problems for the Western-backed incumbent governments.
The discontent of the European powers about U.S. conduct toward Iran is just the most recent, visible indication of transatlantic policy discord. European leaders and publics are chafing about Washington’s arrogance and tone-deaf behavior generally. Several European governments, including those in Italy, Turkey, and Hungary, are pressing for a reconsideration of the Western sanctions strategy against Russia. Long-standing controversies about burden-sharing within NATO have reached unprecedented intensity during the Trump years.
The most important manifestation of growing European discontent with U.S. leadership is the move by France and other powers to create an independent, “Europeans only” defense capability. Washington’s hostility to that move is intense. Throughout his career, National Security Adviser John Bolton has repeatedly condemned any independent European security entity as a “dagger pointed at NATO’s heart.” His view is not unusual. The Trump administration just warned its NATO partners that additional moves toward establishing an independent defense entity through the EU would be a “poison pill” for the transatlantic alliance.
That message underscores the real meaning of the repeated U.S. campaigns for greater burden-sharing. U.S. leaders want NATO’s European members to become more capable security partners, but only within a U.S.-dominated NATO. Washington sees the Europeans as valuable junior security partners—with the emphasis on “junior.” But given the mounting disagreements about policy and the growing irritation with Washington’s arrogant leadership style, the European allies are not inclined to tamely accept that arrangement any longer. Irritation about the Trump administration’s dangerously belligerent conduct toward Iran is highlighting the European discontent, but it is merely the latest sign of a much larger problem. The transatlantic community now resembles a troubled marriage that may be headed for divorce.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in security studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at the National Interest, is the author of twelve books and more than eight hundred articles on international affairs. His latest book is Gullible Superpower: U.S. Support for Bogus Foreign Democratic Movements.