(Bloomberg) -- European leaders are battling to come up with a response to the escalating tensions between Iran and the U.S. with their Middle East strategy shredded and the nuclear deal dead in all but name.
As French President Emmanuel Macron worked the phones, European Union foreign ministers arranged an extraordinary meeting on Jan. 10 in Brussels to discuss the situation.
The killing of Qassem Soleimani -- one of Iran’s top commanders and the country’s second-most-powerful figure after Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- was more than just a shock for the EU: It was a disaster. The bloc has been fighting an increasingly desperate and lonely campaign to keep the 2015 Iran nuclear accord together ever since President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out in 2018.
The fruit of more than a decade of diplomatic efforts by France, Germany and the U.K. was laid to waste on Sunday when Iran said it no longer considers itself bound by its international obligations to restrict the enrichment of uranium. Meanwhile, the Iraqi parliament called on U.S. troops to withdraw from the country, risking a resurgence of Islamic State.
For the Europeans, with a long and checkered history in the region, it is the worst possible outcome and one they have little power to change beyond the use of words. Leaders of the three countries issued a statement Sunday saying they “urge Iran to reverse all measures inconsistent with the JCPOA,” as the accord is known.
The statement was noteworthy for not mentioning Trump or the U.S. action explicitly. It was a carefully crafted six paragraphs “on the situation in Iraq.” Dominic Raab, U.K. foreign secretary, spent a lot of Sunday doing the round of shows to explain that the U.K. understood the action the Americans had taken while never explicitly backing it.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said in a radio interview on Monday that “Europe has open channels to both the U.S. and Iran as it seeks to prevent Iraq becoming the scene for a war between the two nations.” In truth, the nuclear agreement had been unraveling and Macron-led efforts to help Iran get around U.S. sanctions got little traction.
Its collapse removes a key plank of the EU’s efforts to maintain stability in the region, and lays bare the limitations of EU foreign policy as a whole. EU foreign ministers were meant to gather Jan. 20 and -- at Germany’s urging -- the bloc’s new foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, might rally diplomats earlier. In all this, it remains to be seen how Iran will avenge Soleimani’s death.
What is clear is that it has taken more than 48 hours for Macron, the U.K.’s Boris Johnson and Germany’s Angela Merkel to issue a common stance calling for a reduction of tensions -- showing they may be struggling to hold a united front.
The French leader has stuck his neck out the most. In August, Macron tried to engineer a rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran when he brought Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to Biarritz, France, for meetings on the sidelines of a Group of Seven summit attended by Trump. At the United Nations annual gathering he appealed to Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to have “the courage to build peace.”
Macron more or less had the support of the U.K. and Germany. But it’s unclear whether that stays the case with the U.S. cranking up the pressure for allies to pick a side.
“Frankly, the Europeans haven’t been as helpful as I wish that they could be,” Secretary of State Michael Pompeo told Fox News. “The Brits, the French, the Germans all need to understand that what we did, what the Americans did, saved lives in Europe as well.”
Johnson, triumphant after a decisive U.K. election win, has come under fire at home for staying on holiday while the crisis unfolded. Emily Thornberry, foreign policy spokeswoman for the opposition Labour Party, asked in a newspaper column: “Is he afraid of angering Trump? Or is it simply that, as he lounges in the Caribbean sun, he simply does not care?”
Johnson has a good personal rapport with Trump and wants a post-Brexit trade deal with the U.S. On top of all that, there are many reasons why the U.K. is cautious. It is unlikely to risk another military engagement in the Middle East after Tony Blair’s premiership was ultimately undone by his backing for the Iraq War. David Cameron, another U.K. prime minister, was humiliated in 2013 when parliament vetoed his commitment to back U.S. military action in Syria.
With the attention focused on Iran’s next step, some have a different interpretation to Iran’s declaration that it would no longer abide by any limits on its enrichment of uranium.
Ali Vaez, Iran project director at the International Crisis Group, a research institute based in Brussels, said that Tehran is still being measured.
If Vaez is right, then perhaps there is still a role for Europeans to play. Macron has spoken to Russia’s Vladimir Putin -- it was France that initiated the call on Friday, the Kremlin pointed out -- and Johnson for now is holding the line.
“All calls for retaliation or reprisals will simply lead to more violence in the region and they are in no one’s interests,” Johnson said in a statement after calls with Trump and fellow Europeans.
(Updates with EU meeting in second paragraph. An earlier version corrected the name of the German foreign minister in the sixth paragraph)
--With assistance from Iain Rogers.
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