Iran’s Staged Pullout From the Nuclear Deal Will Backfire

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Iran’s threat to pull out of the nuclear deal—in phases, rather than in a fell swoop—will likely have the opposite effect from the one the regime intends. Rather than driving a wedge between the U.S. and Europe, it will force them together.

The Islamic Republic says it will remain partially in compliance with the 2015 deal for another two months, while giving the European signatories a final chance to fulfill their commitments to facilitate the restoration of trade and investment links. After that, like some sinister Salome, it will gradually shed its obligations, performing a dance of seven veiled threats.

In a peculiar turn of phrase, President Hassan Rouhani described this as “diplomacy with a new language and a new logic.”

It will have the same old consequences, though—more isolation and sanctions for Iran. If Iran returns to the status quo ante that prevailed before the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the nuclear deal is formally known, it will also return to its pariah status.

The Europeans, who have wanted to preserve the deal—going so far as creating a special payment mechanism to protect humanitarian trade from U.S. sanctions—will have little option but to punish the Islamic Republic as soon as they determine that it once again poses a nuclear threat. France’s defense minister has already warned that the prospect of sanctions “will be raised.”

The only question is when. Will it be after the fourth veil? The sixth?

They will also perforce pay closer attention to Iran’s other nefarious activities, at home and abroad. While there was a hope of keeping the deal alive, the Europeans have been restrained in response to Iran’s regional bad behavior—the continued support for Bashar al-Assad’s genocide in Syria, the undermining of Iraqi democracy by means of proxies, the moral and material support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, and the Houthis in Yemen.

This strategic see-no-evil posture went even further than President Barack Obama’s attitude toward Iranian misbehavior during the nuclear negotiations. For instance, the Europeans have let the regime off with a light rap on the knuckles--mild sanctions and diplomatic expulsions—for planning and conducting assassinations of opposition figures on European soil. And they have resisted U.S. pressure to impose stiffer penalties on Iran’s ballistic-missile development program.

As hope fades for Tehran’s compliance on the nuclear deal, the Europeans will get tougher. In short, they will find themselves closer and closer to the American position. They may not feel compelled to rattle their sabers in the fashion so beloved by the Trump regime, but European sanctions would damage an Iranian economy already reeling from American strictures.

Iran is still hoping to forestall this eventuality. Rouhani’s 60-day moratorium for the Europeans is a last attempt to cleave the Western alliance, to pry the Europeans away from the U.S. The Iranians have hoped for such a division ever since the U.S. pulled out of the deal: it hasn’t happened in the past 12 months, and it won’t in the next two.

Rouhani didn't do the Iranian cause any favors with a naked attempt at blackmail. If the Europeans didn't deliver, he said, Iran would cut back on its efforts to prevent the flow of migrants and drugs into Europe. This is a threat he has made before. It is the diplomatic equivalent of, "Fine continent you've got there... Shame if something were to happen to it."

As much as Angela Merkel, Emmuanuel Macron and Theresa May resent Donald Trump’s reckless torching of the deal—and as much as they covet commercial opportunities in Iran for German, French and British companies—they are not about to abandon the alliance for a brutal regime that oppresses its own people and uses proxies to slaughter others, and uses crude blackmail to try and get its way with the West.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a columnist and member of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.

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