French President Emmanuel Macron arrived in Washington Monday with a seemingly innocuous request for President Trump: Let Europe keep doing business with Iran. But unless Trump wants to make a bad nuclear deal even worse, he should flatly reject Macron’s request.
In January, Trump said he would re-impose America’s toughest sanctions on Iran — those suspended under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — unless US and European negotiators fix the nuclear deal’s fatal flaws. These include the lack of inspections at Iranian military facilities, end dates for curbs on Iran’s nuclear program and the exclusion of Iran’s ballistic missiles from the deal.
Now, less than three weeks before Trump’s deadline, critical gaps remain. Europe won’t explicitly endorse the elimination of sunset dates and objects to any mechanism that would automatically re-impose sanctions if Iran cut the time in which it could produce enough weapons-grade uranium for one nuke.
Europe is also willing to agree to powerful sanctions on Tehran only for the testing of long-range missiles that the regime doesn’t yet possess. As for missiles capable of wiping out Israel, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain or the UAE, the Europeans are willing to apply only mild and ineffectual sanctions. To avoid a transatlantic rift, Trump will face enormous pressure to follow suit.
The Europeans want Trump to reverse international precedent and, in effect, tolerate Iranian nuclear-warhead-capable missiles with shorter ranges — much as President Barack Obama reversed international precedent by legitimizing Iran’s enrichment of uranium at lower levels.
Why? Because if a snapback of sanctions is tied mostly just to testing (nonexistent) long-range missiles, there won’t be much risk of Iran doing anything to trigger the return of those sanctions — even as it builds up the rest of its deadly missile program. Europe’s thirst for trade with Iran is so intense, apparently, it’s willing to sacrifice Israel and its Gulf allies to keep the money flowing.
On the campaign trail, Trump called the Iran nuclear deal a “disaster” and the “worst deal ever negotiated.” So, it’s unlikely he would now agree to a phony fix that locks in the status quo of the deal, puts key allies in harm’s way and helps the Iranian regime increase its profits.
Not to mention one that does nothing to stop Iran’s research and development on advanced nuclear centrifuges, curtail Iranian sponsorship of terrorism, win the release of American hostages or improve human-rights conditions inside Iran.
Even if Trump and Macron can agree on a way to truly fix the nuclear deal, Trump would still need to make one thing clear: A fix is not a fix if it results in the Iranian regime’s coffers filling up with euros, to be funneled into terrorism, proliferation and regional expansion.
If the Central Bank of Iran is funding Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, the fix must not prevent Trump from re-imposing sanctions on the bank.
If Iran’s Export Development Bank is involved in proliferation or the Supreme Leader’s business empire is bankrolling terrorism, sanctions should return on those entities, too.
When Obama sold the nuke deal to Congress, he claimed that nothing would preclude the West from re-imposing sanctions for illicit non-nuclear activities. But it never happened, and without a formal transatlantic political agreement, the fear of jeopardizing the deal will always prevent it from happening. This sanctions paralysis regarding non-nuclear threats is one of the deal’s unspoken fatal flaws.
That’s why Trump must ask Macron not only to acknowledge the legitimacy of such actions but pledge his support for them. If he won’t, Trump would be better off nixing the deal entirely.
Macron reportedly has a fallback plan in case Trump opts to nix the deal altogether: Ask him to not enforce US sanctions involving Europe and, instead, let Europe keep doing business with Iran. Trump should forcefully reject this request as well.
Not enforcing sanctions lets the Iranian regime get wealthier and stronger, leading to increased funding for Assad, terrorism, proliferation, regional expansion and repression. And North Korea will think Trump can be manipulated and will adjust its diplomatic strategy accordingly.
Countries will seek exemptions from US sanctions on Russia. US financial sanctions, feared by every corporate lawyer in the world, will lose their chilling effect overnight.
Trump should make clear to Macron that if American sanctions come back, they will be fully enforced as part of a maximum pressure strategy to roll back the Iranian regime. Then Europe can choose: do business with Iran or do business with the United States. We know what choice they’ll make.
Richard Goldberg, an architect of congressionally enacted sanctions against Iran, is a senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
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