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Iran Standoff: US Allies Getting Cold Feet on Yet Another Middle East Conflict

The Trump administration continues to pursue an extremely confrontational policy toward Iran, and Washington finds itself increasingly alone in doing so.  Even most of the traditional European allies show little enthusiasm for the U.S. approach.  Indeed, many of them now are openly defying Washington’s wishes.  As I discuss in a recent National Interest Online article, such resistance has been building for some time, but the administration’s newest actions have intensified the opposition. 

NATO governments are especially uneasy about Washington’s decision to deploy B-52 bombers, send an additional 1,500 troops to the Middle East, and take other steps in response to Israeli-provided intelligence that Tehran was planning attacks on U.S. forces.  Washington’s withdrawal last year from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) regarding Tehran’s nuclear program already generated noticeable push-back from the other signatories to the agreement, including Britain, France, and Germany.  All three countries made it clear that they would not follow the United States to re-impose economic sanctions on Tehran.  Indeed, they and other European Union (EU) members openly sought ways that they could cushion Iran (and their own businesses) from the worst effects of the U.S. action.

The allies were annoyed again this year when the administration continued to insist that the European signatories withdraw from the JCPOA. Germany and other countries flatly refused.  In April, Washington exacerbated already serious transatlantic frictions when it eliminated some of the boycott waivers it had granted to EU firms.  Allied governments sharply criticized  that step and Washington’s other moves to tighten sanctions.  Iran soon stated that it would no longer abide by some JCPOA provisions and might resume enriching uranium. Tehran’s response confirmed some of the worst European apprehension about the probable consequences of Washington’s strategy. 

European leaders also resent growing U.S. pressure on them to embrace a policy they oppose.  When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a surprise visit to Brussels in early May as EU foreign ministers met to discuss the escalating crisis about the Iran nuclear agreement, his reception was midpoint between cool and frigid.  

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What little international support the Trump administration continues to receive for its Iran policy comes from Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Tehran’s other longtime adversaries in the Middle East.  But that support is clearly motivated by cynical, self-serving concerns.  Israel would like the United States to weaken, if not eliminate, a major geopolitical nemesis.  Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies are pursuing a policy of regional hegemony, and Iran is the principal obstacle to that goal. 

Unfortunately, Washington has blindly served as an enabler for Riyadh’s policies. To America’s everlasting shame, that support (under both the Obama and Trump administrations) has included active military assistance to the Saudi-led war in Yemen against Tehran’s supposed Houthi allies.  That war has included numerousSaudi war crimes.  Although the European allies thus far have refrained from publicly denouncing Washington’s policy in Yemen, most of them clearly are uneasy about it. 

A government finding itself alone in pursuing a policy is not necessarily evidence of error.  Minority perspectives sometimes prove to be right and majority perspectives spectacularly wrong.  But Washington’s Iran policy is not one of those cases.  The Trump administration’s approach has been counterproductive and is becoming increasingly dangerous.  Most of Washington’s allies recognize the extent of the folly, and U.S. officials would be wise to listen to their observations and objections.

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