By Steven Erlanger
With strong memories of the last catastrophic war in Iraq, Europeans are united in opposing what many consider the United States’ effort to provoke Iran into a shooting war. Yet, despite the strains in trans-Atlantic relations in the Trump years, flat-out opposition to Washington remains an uncomfortable place for European nations.
Initially, not even pro-American Britain would go along with President Donald Trump’s administration, with officials defending a senior British general in the coalition fighting the Islamic State who said that there was no enhanced threat from Iran in Iraq and Syria.
But that brought an American rebuttal, and soon the Europeans, reluctant to confront Washington directly, softened the criticism. Britain officially rowed back, saying that it now agreed with the Americans, while Germany and the Netherlands suspended their troop training in Iraq, citing the American warnings. (Germany subsequently said it was planning to resume the training exercises.)
Window dressing aside, however, there was little doubt about where the Europeans stood on the Iran issue.
“Every single European government believes that the increased threat we’re seeing from Iran now is a reaction to the United States leaving the Iran nuclear agreement and trying to force Iranian capitulation on other issues,” said Kori Schake, a former Pentagon official who is now deputy director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“They believe that the US is the provocateur, and they worry that the US is reacting so stridently to predictable Iranian actions in order to provide a pretext for a US attack on Iran,” Schake said.
It is a far cry from the debate preceding the 2003 Iraq War, which “split Europe in two,” said Tomas Valasek, the director of Carnegie Europe and a former Slovak ambassador to NATO. “This is a case of all European governments saying to Washington that this is insane, we shouldn’t be here, and it’s your fault that we’re actually talking of war.”
For a supporter of the trans-Atlantic relationship, he added, “the last thing you want to do is unify Europe on an anti-American basis, and that’s what Trump” and his national security adviser, John R. Bolton, have done.
The Europeans are trapped between Trump and Tehran, trying to keep decent relations with Washington while committed to supporting the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that Trump mocked and then abandoned.
Senior European government officials say they believe that Trump, as he said Thursday, does not want a major war in the Middle East. But they also believe that Bolton, does. They often cite a New York Times opinion article by Bolton in 2015, when he was out of office, titled “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran.”
And European officials are baffled by Trump’s insistence that he simply wants to force Iran into new negotiations. Why, they say, would Tehran, whose supreme leader regards Washington as duplicitous in any event, concede or even value any deal done with the president who just abandoned a nuclear deal so painfully negotiated with the last US president?
“Why would they trust us now after Trump pulled the plug on the last thing they negotiated with Washington?” Schake said.
The public position of European officials has been to urge “maximum restraint,” as the European foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, put it. That was a riposte to Washington’s stated policy of “maximum pressure” on Tehran, including punishing economic sanctions designed to block its international trade, especially in oil, on which the economy depends.
Foreign ministers — including Britain’s Jeremy Hunt and Germany’s Heiko Maas — have spoken about the dangers of escalation and accidental war.
“We are very worried about the risk of a conflict happening by accident with an escalation that is unintended,” Hunt said.
Maas told German legislators that putting intense pressure on Iran added to the risk of an unintended escalation. “What has happened in recent days — acts of sabotage against ships or pipelines — are indications that these dangers are concrete and real,” he said, referring to reports that four oil vessels were recently attacked at the mouth of the Persian Gulf.
While initially skeptical of US warnings of an increased threat to its troops from Iran and its allies, most European officials now accept the American concerns, even as they consider the response exaggerated and provocative.
Iran’s responses to US pressure were predicted by the Pentagon, Centcom and American intelligence agencies, Schake said.
“So Europeans are exasperated that the US wants them to snap into line for a policy they believe is wrong, and with the consequences that they and the Pentagon and US intelligence all told the Trump administration it would produce.”
No one should be surprised, she and others said, that Iran would use its own leverage — including the restarting of uranium enrichment (still within the limits of the nuclear deal), its militias, proxies and arms transfers — within the region to respond to Washington in an asymmetric way.
“The Iranians may have walked into a Washington hard-liner trap,” said Jeremy Shapiro, a former senior State Department official who is now research director for the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Iran as usual is sending messages and going up the escalator ladder one-eighth of a step at a time, through proxies,” he said. “They’re following the script. Iranian and US hard-liners have a toxic interaction and feed off each other.”
In the first Gulf War, in 1990-91, the United States led a broad multinational coalition; in the second, in 2003, the European “coalition of the willing” was essentially reduced to Britain and Poland.
Part of Europe’s skepticism is rooted in that 2003 war, when there were charges of fake or exaggerated intelligence, which continue to haunt the reputations of then-loyal European leaders, such as former Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain and former President Aleksander Kwasniewski of Poland.
“Every European politician who supported George W. Bush was taken out and effectively executed,” Shapiro said. “Even in the UK, no way there can be a repeat of that. If the US policy is force, there will be no European support.”