Europe’s Iranian Moment of Truth

Wall Street Editorial Board

October 18, 2017


President Trump’s decertification of the Iran nuclear deal is kicking up a mini-panic in Europe. The Continent’s leaders warn that Mr. Trump’s move could undermine trans-Atlantic relations, and that no U.S. President can unilaterally walk away from the deal. But Europe was overdue for a moment of truth on Iran, and Mr. Trump is providing one.

Europeans embraced the deal even before the final agreement was signed in 2015. Business trips to Tehran started under the pre-2015 interim agreement, and France opened Europe’s first trade office in the Iranian capital barely two months after the final deal was struck. Airbus has agreed to sell billions of euros’ worth of commercial planes to Iran. Germany’s chemical and machine-tools industries have cashed in with deals. French and German auto makers have signed agreements to export cars to Iran or make them there. And oil and gas companies across Europe are piling in.

We warned that it would only be a matter of time before a “pro-Iran commercial lobby resurfaces in Europe,” and here it is. The damage new sanctions would do to many European firms is at the heart of complaints about a trans-Atlantic rift after Mr. Trump’s decertification. But Europeans should have known better than to believe President Obama’s promises about the deal’s staying power in the U.S.

Mr. Obama never submitted the deal to the Senate for ratification as a treaty to cement support for it in Washington, since he knew it wouldn’t pass. That was a clue for Europe. British firms picked up on the signals and have been notably slower to strike new Iranian deals, fearing that Washington could reimpose sanctions.

The question for Europe is whether to double down on its investment of political capital and its own credibility in a deal Washington increasingly scorns and whose spirit Tehran habitually violates. The main trans-Atlantic crisis that could emerge will be if London, Paris and Berlin—the three EU governments that co-signed the 2015 deal—conclude that business interests with Tehran are more important than helping Washington enforce counter-proliferation measures.

The better option is to work with Washington instead of fighting it. French President Emmanuel Macron has spoken of revisiting the nuclear deal’s 2025 sunset clauses. The three EU signatories can also join Washington in demanding that Tehran allow inspections of military sites by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) under the deal.

European officials currently claim Iran is abiding by the nuclear agreement, but they can’t possibly know if Tehran resists inspections of military sites. Addressing this shortcoming will require Europe to stand up to Iran’s Russian enablers.

Despite denunciations from Europe, Mr. Trump has given U.S. allies time to develop a plausible replacement for the current deal. Leaders such as Mr. Macron should heed their better strategic instincts rather than their angry business lobbies and join Washington in crafting an approach to Iran that makes the Middle East—and Europe—more secure.