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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 14 August 2018

With clear proof of the threat, Europe can no longer turn a blind eye to Iranian hostility

The determination of the EU to preserve the Iran nuclear deal is the source of genuine bafflement in Washington, writes Con Coughlin

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to European Union's Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini ahead of the at the 25th Asean Regional Forum Retreat in Singapore on August 4, 2018. Joseph Nair / AP
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to European Union's Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini ahead of the at the 25th Asean Regional Forum Retreat in Singapore on August 4, 2018. Joseph Nair / AP

The reluctance of the major European powers to support the Trump administration’s implementation of a new sanctions regime against Iran will only serve to deepen the already dangerous rift that is emerging in the transatlantic alliance.

Tensions have been running high between the US and the EU over President Donald Trump’s threat to start a trade war with Europe over what he regards as the bloc’s protectionist policies towards American commerce, with the bloc threatening retaliatory measures of its own.

And these strains could be further exacerbated if the EU continues with its policy of opposing Washington’s decision to impose a new sanctions on Iran in an attempt to curb its increasingly pernicious influence in the Middle East.

The Trump administration has made it abundantly clear that it will take a very dim view of any European enterprise that continues to do business with Tehran, thereby undercutting the effectiveness of the American sanctions. As the president bluntly declared after announcing the renewal of sanctions against Iran earlier this week, “anyone doing business with Iran will not be doing business with the United States".

But rather than take the hint, the major European powers joined forces with Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, to declare their opposition to the American action, as well as their intention to maintain a “business as usual” approach to Iran – irrespective of Washington’s fierce opposition.

The EU has even advised any European company that finds itself targeted by Washington for trading with Iran to take advantage of the EU’s so-called “Blocking Statute”, which claims to give European firms protection against any fines or any other measures taken against them by the US.

But as this has never been tested, many European businessmen are sceptical that it affords proper protection against the might of the American judiciary. Furthermore, it essentially gives European firms the choice between doing business with Iran’s relatively small domestic market or with the powerhouse that is the American economy.

Not surprisingly most European concerns prefer the latter option, especially as, if they continue trading with Iran, they risk being denied access to American finance and markets, as well as being liable to fines.

Consequently a number of leading European businesses, including Airbus, Daimler, Siemens and Total, have indicated they are reviewing their business ties with Iran, concerned about finding themselves subjected to punitive American actions.

The insistence of European powers, such as Britain, Germany and France, who issued a joint statement supporting the EU’s position that it “deeply regrets” the White House’s move, is the source of genuine bafflement in Washington.

The official EU position is that “preserving the nuclear deal with Iran is a matter of respecting international agreements and a matter of international security".

Washington takes an entirely different view, insisting that imposing new sanctions is essential to safeguarding international security in the face of increased aggression from the ayatollahs. The American position was best summed up by Mike Pompeo, the administration’s hawkish Secretary of State, who confirmed that the new sanctions were more a reaction to Iran’s continued bellicose behaviour than technical deficiencies in the nuclear deal itself.

“We’re hopeful that we can find a way to move forward,” Mr Pompeo explained, “but it’s going to require enormous change on the part of the Iranian regime. They’ve got to behave like a normal country. That’s the ask. It’s pretty simple.”

Mr Pompeo, who previously served as director of the CIA, is well-versed in the malign influence Iran exercises throughout the Middle East, as are other leading members of the administration’s security establishment such as Defence Secretary James Mattis and John Bolton, the National Security Advisor.

They have issued repeated warnings to Tehran to end its meddling in countries like Syria, Iraq and Yemen, but to no avail.

From the American perspective, therefore, confronting Iran over the aggressive policies it has continued to pursue in the region – especially against those Arab states that are Washington’s allies – since the nuclear deal was signed in 2015 was a no-brainer.

But Washington has struggled to comprehend the obstinate refusal of the 28 member states of the EU – not a single European country has so far backed the American position – when it believes the case against Iran is so clear-cut.

For Iran’s aggressive posture poses as much as a threat to European security as it does the rest of the world, as The National’s latest revelations about the Iranians running a wide-ranging espionage network have demonstrated.

According to documents seen by The National, Asdollah Assadi, the Iranian diplomat arrested in Germany in June for orchestrating a bomb plot against an opposition rally in Paris, has been running a European spy ring to acquire technology to boost the regime’s missile arsenal, while also disrupting opposition groups and carrying out assassinations.

If the Europeans need proof of the threat Iran poses to their interests, this is it. And yet the EU in its wisdom insists on turning a blind eye to Iran’s hostile actions, and instead clings to the fiction that, by maintaining trade ties with Tehran, it will be able to influence a change in Iran’s conduct for the better.

This approach has not worked in the past and is unlikely to work in the future, a fact the EU and its supporters need to grasp before any further damage is caused to the vital alliance with the US.

Con Coughlin is the Daily Telegraph’s defence and foreign affairs editor and author of “Khomeini’s Ghost”

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