Trump’s folly with Iran means Europe must show what it stands for

A collapse of the Iran nuclear agreement could spark catastrophic, global conflict. Time for Europeans to close the gap between words and action.

Mary Fitzgerald headshot in circle, small
Mary Fitzgerald
9 May 2018
United States President Donald J. Trump makes a statement on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action regarding Iran

"Criminal folly with global implications" Image: Martin H. Simon/CNP/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

In 2003, as United States troops arrived “at the gates of Baghdad”, openDemocracy’s prescient columnist Paul Rogers predicted a 30 years’ war. He warned that “the US’s current global ambitions guarantee bitter and prolonged conflict in the Middle East and beyond”. Along with Rogers, the late Fred Halliday emphasised that Iran was bound to be the strategic victor of the United States’ conquest of Iraq.

For Trump to abandon rather than build on the deal is a criminal folly with global implications

At least our writers expected the war to be fought and ended in the Middle East. President Donald Trump’s catastrophic decision, announced yesterday, to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal makes their predictions not nearly pessimistic enough. Trump means the opposite of what he says: he claims he is blocking an Iranian road to war, but in fact he and his allies in Israel are sparking a new, potentially global, round of conflict.

Using remote-control murder by drone as his shield, President Barack Obama attempted to limit the United States’ Iraq defeat and to rebuild the global alliance that had supported his country when it invaded Afghanistan in 2001. Obama’s expansion of drone warfare to achieve this end was a cynical calculation. It had devastating consequences for some of the world’s most powerless people and has set a dangerous precedent. But Obama had one outstanding success: the 2015 Iran deal. Washington brought Russia, China and the European Union together to oblige Iran to relinquish its nuclear weapons programme, in an unprecedented, practical and enforced worldwide agreement.

For Trump to abandon rather than build on the deal is a criminal folly with global implications. The least of it is that the United States will be seen in the Middle East as a patsy for Israeli-inspired regime change and inhumane expansion into Palestinian territories. Washington is already becoming increasingly isolated in this respect: this is what lies behind the vow of its United Nations ambassador, Nikki Haley, to “take names” of countries that vote in favour of a motion criticising the United States’ decision to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

Provoking China

But beyond the Middle East the situation is graver still. Last week the United States demanded a new trade relationship with China. The provocation is vividly summarised by Martin Wolf in the Financial Times, who concludes, “No great sovereign power could accept such a humiliation. For China, it would be a modern version of the ‘unequal treaties’ of the 19th century.”

As if an all-out trade war with Beijing were not enough, Trump has announced there will be far-reaching sanctions on those who continue to do business with Iran. The European Union has vowed a “united approach” in opposition to this, and Germany, France and Britain have issued a statement reaffirming their commitment to the Iran deal, which they see as essential to preventing nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. A destruction of the international economic system, even without the likely economic crash, could follow from a stand-off between the United States, China and the European Union as oil prices rise. That’s before an open conflict across the Middle East that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems to relish. If those already fighting the proxy war that has devastated Syria attack each other directly, it could close the Straits of Hormuz, throttling the world supply of oil whatever the price.

The president will have consulted with Rupert Murdoch before making his final call

When Trump amplified his rhetoric against North Korea he prevailed on China to force it to the negotiating table. No such way out seems likely now with respect to Iran. His folly is possibly unsurpassed by any previous United States president. Mehrdad Konsari, a former Iranian diplomat, writing for openDemocracy’s North Africa West Asia project just a few days ago, noted the irony of “the rise of ‘Iran Hawks’ in the US… when ideological radicals are but a minority in Iran’s ruling establishment with very little public support”. Trump’s threats to renege on the deal have been, he added, a “god-sent gift for reviving the fortunes of Iranian hard-liners”.

Dreamers of the left

The results will be felt far beyond Iran. Every act of unilateral, international aggression, such as the one the United States has just perpetrated, has immense domestic consequences. This is something the Trump team perhaps understands well, and the president will have consulted with Rupert Murdoch and other United States oligarchs skilled at public manipulation before making his final call. With few exceptions, across the United States and Britain, the democratic and liberal centre and left have been largely paralysed since the surprise of Brexit and the election of Trump, hoping that these horrors will somehow be foiled by impeachment or a parliamentary vote, as if they are nightmares from which their countries can awake if they try hard enough. In fact, it is the opponents of Trump and Brexit who have been dreaming rather than getting to grips with reality, as the political philosopher Michael Sandel has argued in a powerful lecture which we are publishing today.

As Trump demonstrates, the hard right prefers to up the stakes rather than embrace a more moderate approach, which the president’s allies and some advisors pressed him towards. This means we have to prepare ourselves for worse to come. The first popular test will be the upcoming midterm elections in the United States, when voters might well drum out Republican candidates. But international confrontation is always used to rally people to the flag and legitimate the suppression of opposition. Trump will bring the war home.

What Europe can do

And yet Trump’s leap into the unknown provides an opportunity for the divided continent of Europe to find common ground and to play a constructive role in the world. Progressive democrats in Europe are mired in problems on their own doorstep: Brexit is less of a threat than Hungary’s slide into xenophobic autocracy (read Anthony Barnett’s recent dispatch from Budapest), historic victories for the far right in Austria, and Poland’s rapid de-democratisation, all swelled by a surge in anti-immigrant and racist propaganda. There is certainly a risk, compounded by Brexit, that Britain will buckle on the Iran deal in an attempt to curry favour with the Trump regime; the free-trade-at-all-cost, buccaneering Atlanticists who hold sway over the weak government of Prime Minister Theresa May will push in that direction.

Remember, too, the hypocrisy on view in dealings with Saudi Arabia

However, Britain is still scarred by its last experience of following a United States president who promised a crusade of good against evil; the French president, Emmanuel Macron, despite warm personal relations with Trump, has described the United States’ flip-flopping on international agreements as “insane”; and the continued commitment of Russia and China to the Iran deal offers European leaders an opportunity to follow a different path, both in style and substance.

It will require bravery and vision, given the United States’ economic muscle. Europe badly needs to reassert a shared narrative, but the gap between the words and actions of Europe’s so-called leaders can be wide indeed: witness their anodyne press releases about ‘shared values’, while cutting cynical deals with Turkey in order to keep out the migrant “swarms” – to use the racist language of a former British prime minister, David Cameron. Remember, too, the hypocrisy on view – particularly from Britain – in dealings with Saudi Arabia, another regime which exports regional chaos and abuses citizens at home. It was remarkable that the British press seemed to swallow and parrot wholesale the official narrative of last year’s Saudi ‘anti-corruption’ purge by the new ‘reforming’ Crown Prince, as if allowing women to drive could counterbalance the direction of a brutal war in Yemen and countless other human rights outrages.

But standing up to Trump, a bully who represents the very antithesis of what it should mean to be European right now, might just help to start closing the gap between words and action in Europe. An epochal fight for democracy, liberty and human rights for all, of every race, gender and religion, is under way. It is time for all who can to stand together, demonstrating the wisdom, solidarity and imagination that Trump’s toxic, polarising project lacks. There is no margin for error.

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