Exit from Iran Deal Trump Strikes a Deep Blow to Trans-Atlantic Ties

With his decision to blow up the Iran deal, U.S. President Donald Trump has thrown Europe into uncertainty and anxiety -- and raised the specter of a new war in the Middle East. One thing is certain: the trans-Atlantic relationship has been seriously damaged. By DER SPIEGEL Staff

French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Aachen on Thursday.
Thilo Schmuelgen / REUTERS

French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Aachen on Thursday.


On Thursday, towards the end of a week that began for both of them with a slap in the face from the American president, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron were standing together in the Coronation Hall of the Aachen Town Hall doing their best to project confidence. The French president had just been awarded the International Charlemagne Prize and Merkel had held the laudation. They praised each other and confirmed their unity -- even if they aren't entirely on the same page when it comes to the future of Europe.

But they do agree on one issue: Donald Trump. Lately, the American president has emerged as a great unifier of Europe. Ever since Trump's Tuesday announcement that the U.S. was withdrawing from the nuclear agreement with Iran, one of the core pieces of international diplomacy in recent years, the Europeans have been united in shock, in anger at Trump's irresponsible move and in their refusal to accept it. But they are also united in their helplessness when it comes to dealing with this new America.

The joint appearance by Macron and Merkel would have been a perfect opportunity for a unified reply to Donald Trump. For a joint vision of European foreign policy and a powerful appearance of decisive European politicians. They could have sought to reassure the people of Europe and demonstrate that they had a plan. But none of that came to pass.

What, after all, can Europe do?

The American withdrawal from the Iran deal is the most dangerous and cavalier foreign policy decision that a U.S. president has made since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The risk is very real that the move will worsen tensions in an already unstable Middle East and lead to an American-led war against Iran. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was quick to threaten a return to industrial-scale uranium enrichment and few doubt that such an eventuality could lead to conflict.

It became abundantly clear early Thursday morning just how tense the situation was, with the most serious confrontation yet between the Iranian Quds Force, operating in Syria, and Israel. Israel claims Iran first fired around 20 missiles at the Golan Heights, an area under Israeli control. The Israeli military says it responded with a massive attack on around 35 Iranian targets within Syria. The possibility of escalation in the region, of course, existed prior to the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal. But the episode makes it clear how dangerous the current situation in the region is.

Attack on Europe's Pride

The mood in Paris, Brussels and Berlin is reminiscent of the period just prior to the war in Iraq. Most of Europe refused to back the U.S. in that conflict, even if the British and the Italians joined then-President George W. Bush in the offensive. This time around, however, the Europeans are united in their desire to preserve the deal with Iran, even if nobody knows how they might be able to.

An attack on the Iran deal is an attack on the pride of European foreign policy. To be sure, EU member states often find it impossible to produce a joint statement on overseas developments, such as the U.S. decision to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. But Europe has consistently demonstrated unity on the Iran deal and along with Germany, France and Britain, the EU was a decisive participant in the talks.

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For the EU's chief diplomat, Federica Mogherini, the treaty is proof of the influence united European diplomacy can have. She has an original copy of the deal on display in her office on the upper floors of the European Commission building in Brussels. It is opened to the page bearing the signatures of those involved, including that of John Kerry, who was U.S. secretary of state at the time.

Hardly surprising, then, that Mogherini adopted an aggressive tone on Tuesday evening when she stepped before the cameras at 8:30 p.m. in Rome just a few minutes after Trump had made his announcement. The nuclear deal, she said, is culmination of 12 years of diplomacy. "It belongs to the entire international community." She then appealed to Iran to continue to adhere to the deal. "Stay true to your commitments, as we will stay true to ours."

The idea behind this treaty, which was ratified by the UN Security Council, is that Iran would refrain for 10 years from further developing its nuclear program and in return the West would significantly reduce economic sanctions in place against the country. Because nobody trusted Iran's word, given past breeches of trust, the deal is based on a system of inspections and controls. Iran adhered to the deal, which was finalized in 2015 under the leadership of Barack Obama, but many Republicans in the U.S. nevertheless rejected it from the very beginning.

Farewell to America

In truth, Trump hasn't backed out of the deal, he has violated it by simply reimposing sanctions against Iran. That is the view widely held in the German government as well.

More than anything, though, Trump has humiliated Europe to a greater degree than any U.S. president before him. Macron fawned over him recently in the White House, Merkel swung by for a working lunch and British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson also made the trip across the Atlantic in an attempt to save the deal and somehow find some kind of a compromise. But it was all in vain.

In the end, Trump backed out of the deal in the most brutal manner possible, with a combative speech and the reintroduction of all sanctions against Iran. He was unable to offer any convincing reasons for why he has chosen this particular moment in time to leave the deal. He wasn't even able to claim that Iran hadn't lived up to its end of the bargain because Tehran has demonstrably adhered to its provisions.

To complete Europe's humiliation, Trump's new U.S. ambassador in Berlin, Richard Grenell, sent out a tweet this week demanding that German companies immediately begin winding down their operations in Iran. It sounded more like the words of a colonial power issuing orders than those of a diplomat in an allied country.

Graphic: A web of influence in the Middle East
DER SPIEGEL

Graphic: A web of influence in the Middle East

It isn't the first time that America's traditional trans-Atlantic allies have received such shabby treatment from Trump. The U.S. president has repeatedly accused his NATO partners of being freeloaders, he withdrew from the Paris climate agreement despite massive protest from Europe and he has indicated his willingness to start a trade war with the EU. Europe has had some kind of answer to all of these provocations: The NATO critiques from Washington have either been ignored or have led to promises of more defense spending in the future. On the Paris agreement, Trump's announcement has been more symbolic than real since large states like California are continuing to adhere to the deal's provisions. And when it comes to trade, Europe is a heavy hitter itself.

But Washington's violation of the Iran deal hits Europe hard. Although it has been clear for months that Trump was leaning toward taking such a step, it isn't obvious what might happen next. Europe seems woefully unprepared. In the days following Trump's announcement, Berlin, Paris and London have repeatedly said that they would continue to uphold the deal, that not much will change for companies interested in doing business in Iran and that options for protecting companies are being explored. But when asked what exactly such protections might look like, nobody has an adequate answer.

'An Existential Necessity'

In Aachen on Tuesday, Merkel essentially repeated the sentences she uttered last year during an appearance in Bavaria: "Europe can no longer rely on the U.S. It must take its fate into its own hands." Last year, her statement to that effect caused quite a stir both within Germany and beyond. This time, it was merely a statement of fact: The trans-Atlantic relationship has suffered tremendous damage. Merkel added that a joint foreign policy was "an existential necessity."

But is that something Europe is able to do? Is it able to declare independence from the West's traditional leader? Is it able to come to agreement on joint positions? And how can Europe defend itself when the German military is having trouble keeping such fundamental equipment as planes and submarines operational?

The feeling of alienation runs deep. Wolfgang Ischinger, formerly Germany's ambassador in Washington and currently the head of the Munich Security Conference, tweeted this week: "Is the transatlantic alliance dead? If one side refuses to even consider the arguments presented by the other side: are we still together, as we try to manage challenges to our shared security interests? Or are we now drifting apart for good? Sad questions!"

It sounds like a couple that, despite their best intentions to stay together, doesn't seem capable of making things work.

"In one respect, the trans-Atlantic alliance is indispensable for the foreseeable future, namely on the issue of nuclear protection," Ischinger says. "That cannot be replaced by anyone else. From a security perspective, we cannot cut the umbilical cord that binds us to the U.S." He adds: "Given our security policy interests, there is nothing we can do except lament the loss of a real partnership while nevertheless doing all we can to overcome this phase and work towards the time in two-and-a-half years when Trump is no longer in office and there is a new situation. For now, we have to hunker down as best we can."

Now that Trump has violated the nuclear deal, Europeans have three significant concerns: the consequences for Middle Eastern and European security; the risks for European companies that have invested in Iran; and the future of the relationship with the U.S. Niels Annen, minister of state in the Foreign Ministry, told DER SPIEGEL that Trump's withdrawal from the nuclear deal is "an erroneous decision with long-term, grave consequences for our relationship."

'Deeply Frustrated'

A member of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), Annen was in the U.S. capital this week for talks. When Trump announced his decision, Annen was sitting in the office of presidential adviser Fiona Hill, who specializes in issues pertaining to Russia and Europe in the National Security Council. Annen knows Hill well from her stint in the Brookings Institution, but the respect he has for her personally has not been enough to bridge their policy differences. There have been significant disagreements between Berlin and Washington in the past, Annen says, such as on the eve of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But, he adds, the feeling that they were pursuing shared goals was never lost.

That has changed under Trump, Annen says. Whether it is about trade or about the Iran deal: "Our core interests are now at stake," he says. "We must regrettably realize that there is hardly a willingness on the U.S. side to take arguments of their allies seriously." As a foreign policy practitioner, he says, you get used to reversals. "But when I was sitting in the airplane back to Europe this week, I was deeply frustrated for the first time."

On the way to his visit to Moscow on Thursday, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told DER SPIEGEL: "The transformation the U.S. is undergoing has long since left its mark on the trans-Atlantic relationship. That is something that we had begun to feel long before the Tuesday evening disappointment. Nevertheless: We will continue seeking to work together with the U.S. on all policy areas. We are prepared to talk, to negotiate, but also to fight for our interests where necessary. At all levels, not just in the White House."

That sort of language used to be reserved for problematic nations of the world. Not for Germany's most important ally.

The President and the Hardliner

As Donald Trump was holding his 11-minute tirade against the Iran deal on Tuesday, a man was standing silently in the doorway of the Diplomatic Reception Room. John Bolton looked serious but satisfied. But it didn't take long for the mask to come off. "We're out of the deal," he crowed a quarter-hour later to a room full of journalists in the White House. And he then repeated the sentence a second and then a third time: "We're out of the deal." He seemed liberated, almost euphoric. A furious warrior had achieved his target.

There is hardly a crisis in the world that John Bolton does not feel can be solved with war. The solution to Saddam Hussein-controlled Iraq? Bombing. Iran under Hassan Rouhani? Bombing as necessary. Libya? Syria? North Korea? Apply pressure, regime change, bombing. For Bolton, war is a more effective extension of politics. If there is one thing you can't accuse him of, it's inconsistency.

It is particularly ironic that Bolton, who was briefly the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush, is now experiencing his comeback as national security advisor to Donald Trump, a man who claimed during his campaign that he had been opposed to the Iraq invasion and that Hillary Clinton would bog the U.S. down in wars.

Bolton's diplomatic career has one constant: aggression. "John Bolton is a national security threat," wrote the magazine Foreign Policy in March. The New York Times wrote that he is a "political blowtorch." Bolton and Trump do not share the same view of the world, but the tools they prefer to use are the same, as is their list of enemies. Iran is one of them. Bolton is thought to be the author of Trump's Tuesday speech and he is the architect of the U.S.'s withdrawal from the deal. His predecessor, Herbert Raymond McMaster, had sought to convince Trump to remain in the deal. That was ultimately one reason for his eventual dismissal.

As a candidate, Trump called the Iran agreement "one of the worst deals ever made by any country in history." Bolton was only brought in to implement a decision the president had long-since made.

Bolton hates weakness and has no use for compromise. He is not a "neocon" who wants to spread democracy with the force of arms. He is a right-wing hawk who is less "America First" than "America Alone." He believes the application of force isn't just sensible, but necessary. Like Trump, he sees foreign policy as a zero-sum game: Where the U.S. isn't winning against other global powers, it is necessarily losing. He believes multinational organizations like the United Nations, the World Trade Organization and the European Union are superfluous. Three years ago, he submitted an op-ed to the New York Times in which he outlined his Iran plan. "To stop Iran's bomb," he wrote, "bomb Iran."

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