Trump’s Iran Decision Has Turned Allies Into Adversaries

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Don’t place any bets on that Nobel Peace Prize for Donald Trump. North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and Trump may stage the illusion of progress toward a denuclearized Korea. But the details of that goal will take long and arduous diplomacy.

One risk is that Kim is setting a trap for Trump in which both leaders can claim success, but as negotiations drag on, North Korea keeps working on its arsenal and its ballistic missile capabilities. Trump, showman and cynic, may go along so he can claim a diplomatic breakthrough. Another risk is that Trump will realize he is being played, and will one-up Kim by walking out of the talks, thus adding to regional tensions. The one thing that will not happen is the immediate conclusion of a final and verifiable deal.

But the potential for a bogus deal with North Korea is only one of several arenas in which Trump is setting back world peace. Even more serious is the fallout from Trump’s disavowal of the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran.

Scrapping that deal could provoke new tensions in the region, including a strengthening of Iranian hard-liners and an unleashing of a bellicose Israel. And the most damaging result of all may be that Trump’s Iran policy risks fracturing what’s left of the American alliance with Europe. 

The Trump administration has taken the position that any nation that does business with Iran will be in violation of the U.S. commercial boycott and will face stringent sanctions. That means the EU, which supports the deal and did not want Trump to kill it.

After sanctions were lifted in 2015, Europe dramatically increased its trade and investment with Iran. Airbus has already begun delivering jetliners to Iran Air, a 100-plane deal worth billions. The French oil and gas company Total has a $5 billion deal to extract Iranian natural gas. Volkswagen exports cars to Iran, and Peugeot Citroen manufactures them there.

Under the U.S. sanctions regime, any European company that does business in or with Iran will be barred from doing business in the U.S. The U.S. Treasury has given European companies three to six months to end their dealings in or with Iran.

But this threat ― recently echoed by Richard Grenell, Trump’s new ambassador to Germany, in a tweet warning Europe’s companies to start winding down their operations in Iran ― has produced something that has eluded the fragmented members of the EU for decades: absolute unity.

Europe is just emerging from a decade-long recession, and its recovery is fragile. The success of the Macron presidency in Paris and the shaky Merkel coalition government in Berlin depends on the recovery not being derailed.

Europe can ill afford to be barred from the American market, and this latest assault on Europe’s sovereignty was one affront too many. By last Friday, Europe’s leaders were determined to take joint action to nullify Trump’s threat of sanctions.

Bruno Le Maire, the French finance minister, told a television interviewer, “We have to work among ourselves in Europe to defend our European economic sovereignty.” He added, “Do we want to be a vassal that obeys and jumps to attention?” Similar comments were heard in other European capitals. 

Between the final round of negotiations to revise or withdraw from NAFTA, the tit-for-tat trade threats against China and the general imposition of tariffs on aluminum and steel, there has been a lot of loose talk about trade wars. General sanctions against major EU-based companies really would plunge us into one. 

It’s one thing to take a hard line against Iran, or China or possibly Korea. It’s something else to be gravely at odds with America’s most reliable ally. Someone will have to back down here, and for once Europe may find some spine. If they do, the resulting trade war would be Trump’s achievement, as the collateral damage of a dumb and gratuitous foreign policy detour in the Middle East.

The Nobel Prize, of course, is given by the Norwegians, among the most open-minded and idealistic of European nations. It was the Norwegian Nobel Committee that awarded Barack Obama the Nobel Peace Prize not long after he took office, in part because he wasn’t George W. Bush and in part because of the hope he represented. Donald Trump makes Bush look like Pope Francis.

Maybe they should bestow a Nobel Anti-Peace Prize for doing the most needless damage to world peace. Trump would be a shoo-in.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School. His new book is Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?

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