France and Germany have been cheerleading for the Iranian nuclear deal for a long time. When Joe Biden announced he wanted back in the deal, Paris and Berlin turned cartwheels. Indeed, they urged Washington to run with that ball—fast. “Playing for time is in no one’s interest,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas declared.
Europeans have been targets of numerous Iranian terrorist plots. They worry as well about a Tehran nuclear threat and the regime’s destabilizing activities in the Middle East and beyond. Despite opening- up to Tehran, the regime only acted worse. Yet some of Europe’s most powerful leaders want to keep the Iran Deal going. Why?
Part of the answer looks to be all about the Benjamins. France significantly strengthened its economic ties with Iran after the nuclear deal was inked in 2015. Just one year later, the French automotive manufacturing company PSA announced a joint venture with the Iranian automaker Iran Khodro. French-based Alstom and the Industrial Development & Renovation Organization of Iran signed a memorandum “to develop industrial cooperation with the Islamic Republic of Iran […] in the field of mainline and urban transport.” Iran also sealed an agreement with the European giant Airbus to purchase over 100 planes. In 2017, French oil giant Total (now TotalEnergies) sealed a multi-billion-dollar project in the gas sector with Tehran. In 2017 alone, French exports to the Islamic Republic doubled.
The U.S. withdrawal from the deal and the sanctions subsequently imposed by Washington on those doing business with the rogue regime threw a monkey wrench in these arrangements. Total departed from Iran. The PSA joint venture was suspended. The response from Paris, however, was to not give up on the hopes of eventually cashing in.
To be fair, the consequences of cash may not be the only issue. French President Emmanuel Macron longs to be an independent pole in global politics. He sees influence with Iran as a way to bolster Paris’ shaky influence in the Middle East, especially in Lebanon, where Tehran’s long-arm operates through the Shia militant group Hezbollah. We saw this gambit in action last January when Macron parroted Iran’s pushback on Washington’s hard-line toward the terrorist organization in saying: “We don’t expect a change in American attitude towards Hezbollah, but more American realism on what is possible or not given the circumstances in Lebanon.”
Indeed, the prospects of the U.S. coming back in the deal strengthens both France’s economic and political leverage. Macron has promoted himself as an “honest broker” in the dialogue between the U.S. and Iran.
Germany also has had economic ties with Iran and suffered considerable economic fallout from the American sanctions. Automotive giant Daimler quit the country in 2018. German exports to Iran nearly halved during the first six months of 2019.
Still, as in the case of France, the issue for Germany is not exclusively economic. Berlin always viewed the Iran Deal as a triumph of multilateralism, an approach to foreign policy that German Chancellor Angela Merkel has long endorsed. By supporting Iran, Berlin is also indirectly backing the Russian influence in the Middle East, propping up the notion of Germany as balancing power between East and West.
Another facet of Germany’s and France’s soft line on Iran is that it serves China. China has considerably moved closer to Iran: just last March, the two countries signed a 25-year cooperation agreement. Franco-German friendliness towards Iran puts them in more of a middle ground between Washington and Beijing.
There is a problem with all the Franco-German strategic balancing and economic engagement. None of it takes into account the deep flaws of the Iran Deal, which demonstrably was useless in restraining Iran’s nuclear ambitions or Tehran’s destabilizing activities. The consensus answer seems to be, “Yes, the deal will likely fail in the end, but it will give us time to prepare a response, and since we have a multilateral approach there will be a common and coordinated response.” That is nonsense logic.
The reality is the Biden administration looks to the Iran Deal as a way to disengage from the Middle East. Unfortunately, this will allow China and Russia to increase their meddling in the region. This will leave Europe saddled with all the negative consequences of living in a more volatile, dangerous, and worrisome neighborhood.
The worst thing that could happen to Europe is if Berlin and Paris get exactly what they ask for.
This piece originally appeared in 19fortyfive