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EU divided over efforts to appease Trump on Iran deal

Trump’s push for increased European pressure on Iran over its regional policies and missile program has caused divisions within the European Union, ultimately limiting the efforts of the E3.

Over the past few months, Britain, France and Germany (known together as the E3) have attempted to introduce new European Union sanctions against Iran over its regional policies and ballistic missile program. The move has been deemed by observers as complementary to the strategy adopted by the E3 to save the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) following the May deadline imposed by US President Donald Trump for the perceived weaknesses of the agreement to be “fixed.” However, Italy and a few other EU countries have objected to these measures on both procedural and political grounds, raising concerns about a potential division among EU members on Iran policy moving forward.

The E3 has engaged with the United States since January to find ways to address the concerns of the Trump administration over the JCPOA and persuading the US president to continue implementing his side of the bargain under the nuclear deal. US concerns include the so-called sunset clauses, the terms under which site inspections in Iran can take place as well as the country’s regional influence and ballistic missile program. The E3 — with France at the apparent forefront — has also led efforts at the EU level to introduce additional sanctions against Iran. The E3 plan has been to impose EU travel bans and freeze the assets of 15 Iranian entities and individuals linked to Iran's missile program and its role in Syria's war, in an attempt to show that the union shares US concerns about Iran, particularly regarding the country’s regional policies and missiles.

However, despite the E3’s efforts, the other 25 EU member states failed to reach a unanimous decision required by EU regulations to approve new restrictive measures against Tehran. On March 19, prior to the EU Foreign Affairs Council meeting in which the issue was first discussed, the bloc’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini stressed that there was not going to be “a proposal of sanctions, additional sanctions against Iran.” On April 16, in the last formal meeting on the EU agenda before Trump’s deadline, the union failed once again to reach consensus on the matter, though diplomats involved in the deliberations noted growing support for new sanctions.

Italy is leading the skeptical camp on additional bloc-wide sanctions against Iran.

Similarly to the E3, Italy is eager to safeguard the JCPOA. Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni argued, “The international community should ensure that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action remains a success story in the framework of global efforts to counter the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.” Rome shares the E3's concerns over some of Tehran’s regional policies and is willing to continue working with its European partners to address them. Indeed, it was in the latter context that Italy joined the E3 to form the so-called EU/E4, a format established on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference in February to engage with Iran on regional issues, with Yemen being a high priority.

But despite the similarities between Italy's stance on Iran and that of the E3, the picture is entirely different when it comes to sanctions.

Italy is one of the EU countries most interested and invested into reviving economic relations with Iran in the aftermath of the implementation of the nuclear deal. In January, for instance, Italy established a 5 billion euro ($5.9 billion) credit line to cover projects and partnerships in Iran jointly implemented by Iranian and Italian companies in areas of mutual interest, though this arrangement has yet to be implemented.

However, Italian criticism of additional EU sanctions against Iran has more to do with procedural and political concerns. On the former, according to a senior Italian official speaking not for attribution, concerns were raised in Rome about the way the issue was discussed at the EU level, with attempts to skip the discussion of the statement of reasons (which take place at the Political and Security Committee of the Council) and attempts to move directly to the negotiations of the specific and concrete terms of the restrictive measures (led by the Foreign Relations Counsellors Working Party). While there is a need to speed up the procedures in light of the looming May deadline, Italy believes rushing would undermine the credibility of the union’s decision-making process. On the latter, Italy fears that additional sanctions would potentially weaken the administration of moderate President Hassan Rouhani while emboldening hard-liners in Tehran, thus facilitating a more confrontational Iranian posture toward Europe. According to the senior Italian official, such a result would indirectly limit the EU position and influence on Iran, both within the EU/E4 format and the broader economic and political engagement with the Islamic Republic, all with no guarantee that fresh EU sanctions could persuade Trump not to pull out of the JCPOA.

As such, Italy, which has been led by a caretaker government since March, does not believe the timing and the procedure for the adoption of the sanctions against Iran is appropriate for the goals the EU aims to achieve.

After failing to reach a consensus on April 16, the supporters of the E3 initiative said that their efforts will continue working to reach an agreement before Trump’s deadline. Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, for instance, claimed, “The issue remains on the agenda.”

However, no other discussion on the matter has taken place at the EU level, perhaps because following the recent visits to Washington by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, pessimism toward the union's ability to influence Trump’s decision on Iran has drastically increased. Thus with the deadline looming and options running out, the EU is more likely to focus instead on preparing a backup plan to safeguard the nuclear deal regardless of Trump’s decision, a goal that is shared across the union.