European governments are quietly warning the incoming Trump administration that the US will get the blame if any new economic sanctions on Iran lead to the collapse of the 2015 nuclear deal.
European officials have told the Trump team and Republicans in Congress that there would be little appetite within the EU for a new campaign of international pressure on Iran if the US took steps that precipitated the end of the agreement.
The warnings underline the potential for the Iran deal to become a sharp point of contention between the Trump administration and its western European allies. France, Germany and the UK were all involved in the negotiations, which saw Iran receive sanctions relief in return for limitations on its nuclear programme.
President-elect Donald Trump has been sharply critical of the nuclear agreement, calling it “the worst deal in history”, although he has said little about how he will approach the issue once he takes over the White House.
At the same time, leading Republicans in Congress have said they will push a series of new sanctions bills next year which would impose penalties on Iran over its ballistic missile programme, its support of terrorism or its human rights record. At least some of the proposals will have bipartisan support.
However, Iran views new sanctions as a breach of the nuclear agreement and European governments are worried that new US steps could lead to the deal disintegrating.
“If there is some sort of major provocation from the Iranians, then we might be able to get behind new sanctions,” said one senior European official. “But if new American sanctions cause the deal to collapse, then most people in Europe will say it is the Americans’ fault.”
There has been a series of European delegations in recent weeks, which have met Michael Flynn, a controversial retired general and the incoming national security adviser, and other Trump transition officials, and have raised European countries’ concerns about preserving the Iran deal.
The delegations have also met senior Republicans on Capitol Hill, including members of the foreign relations and armed services senate committees.
One of the reasons the issue could come to a head is that Iran and the US have different interpretations of what the nuclear deal actually says about sanctions. For the Americans, the deal only covers sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear programme but leaves open scope for sanctions related to its ballistic missile programme, for instance. However, Iran believes that any sanctions that restore broad penalties on its economy are a breach of the deal.
For the Europeans, new sanctions on specific individuals or entities might be acceptable but they are wary about targeting sectors of the Iranian economy.
“In the current climate, new economic sanctions on Iran are a non-starter,” said another European official.
Supporters of new sanctions, which include many Republicans in Congress and some Democrats, believe they will be a way to pressure Iran into making concessions on other issues in the Middle East, such as its support for militant proxy groups. Congress could potentially take up the issue in the first months of next year before the Trump team has appointed some of the key officials who will be involved in the area.
“If Trump does nothing [about new sanctions proposals], he could quickly find himself in a crisis,” says Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, an Iranian American non-profit group. “He will either have to push back against Congress or face a lot of pressure from the Europeans, who do not want to see the US sabotage the deal.”
The discussion about sanctions has been playing out in the final weeks of the Obama administration, which sees the nuclear deal as one of its main strategic achievements. Earlier this month, Congress renewed the legislation that gives the authority to impose sanctions on Iran for another decade with veto-proof majorities. In a symbolic show of disapproval, however, President Barack Obama did not sign the bill before it became law. The administration argues it already has the authority to “snap back” sanctions on Tehran if it violates the nuclear deal.
Iran complained that the legislation was a violation of the nuclear deal and called for an emergency meeting of the six-nation commission that monitors implementation of the agreement. “They are playing the victim and already seeking to isolate the US,” said Mr Parsi.
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