How America’s Myopic Focus on Iran Hinders Its Russia Policy
In an oddly phrased and capitalized tweet last week, President Donald Trump warned Iran that if it threatened the United States, it would face “CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE.”
The bellicose tweet was the latest reminder that the Trump administration’s Iran policy risks heightening tensions with key U.S. allies. In addition to the all-caps threat, the administration has abrogated the U.S. commitment to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and reimposed sanctions designed to drive down Iranian oil exports. This has created fissures between the United States and Europe, followed by Trump’s disastrous press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin and a shambolic performance at the NATO summit, where he treated American allies as ungrateful free-riders.
As scholars have long observed, great power politics is a story of tragedy. And the United States is facing a tragedy largely of its own making: The Trump administration’s myopic focus on Iran risks a break with European allies precisely at a moment when there is positive momentum — and a clear pathway — to redefine American grand strategy in Europe. Russia’s invasion and dismemberment of Ukraine have helped overcome years of apathy within NATO, which relegated great power competition to the backburner when the Cold War ended.
At first glance, the Iran issue may seem to have little to do with U.S.-Europe relations and Western strategy towards Russia. Indeed, the United States may be able to compartmentalize its foreign policy problems, forcing European compliance with sanctions while preventing harm to NATO. However, it appears increasingly unlikely that Washington can have its cake and eat it too — that is, pursue an aggressive anti-Iran policy while trying to maintain U.S.-European solidarity against Russia. Amid broader European concerns about Trump’s commitment to collective defense and anger about the imposition of tariffs on European exports to America, the United States should consider how a serious break over Iran secondary sanctions would hasten the decline in U.S.-European relations. This would enable Russian gains in Europe, for the sake of countering a threat in the Middle East that most on the continent believe has already been solved.
Iran is a retrograde adversary whose asymmetric capabilities can be managed through conventional deterrence, arms control, and cooperation with regional allies on issues like counter-terrorism and ballistic missile defense. Russia, by contrast, is a near-peer adversary, and should, alongside China, be the measuring stick for American military power. It would be a strategic mistake to weaken collective Western security for the sake of a hard-line approach toward Iran, a far lesser threat. Yet this is exactly what the Trump administration has planned.
Fighting One Fire, Fanning the Flames Of Another
After the United States abandoned its commitments to the Iran nuclear deal, it signaled that it would reimpose sanctions on countries that do business with Iran. According to the Wall Street Journal, “European companies and people could be targeted if they continue doing business in Iran” and European requests for “broad exemptions from sanctions were rebuffed.”
In response, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian bluntly stated that “Europeans should not have to pay for U.S. withdrawal from an agreement.” Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said it is time to create European “financial instruments allowing it to be independent from the United States.” German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier compared the situation to the Trump administration’s imposition of tariffs, saying he hoped to avoid “a spiral of escalation” with the United States, but that the German government will talk to companies about “damage limitation.”
To save the JCPOA, Europe has floated the idea of direct money transfers to Iran’s central bank and voted to allow the non-profit European Investment Bank to do business in Iran. But Europe’s efforts to circumvent U.S. sanctions may not be enough to reverse the damage. The European Investment Bank and large European companies have already bowed to U.S. pressure and have either refused to implement the European Union’s plan or significantly curtailed business with Iran. European countries are almost certain to conclude that dollar transactions and access to the U.S. market are more important than Iran policy, and will therefore try to keep Iran bound to the arms control agreement while managing relations with an American president that has referred to the bloc as a “foe.” French President Emmanuel Macron has downplayed the notion of European economic retaliation for secondary sanctions, saying such an idea “makes no sense, including geopolitically.”
Washington’s ability to coerce Europe is hardly a shining example of American “leadership.” America is not leading. It is forcing its closest friends to implement policies that undermine their self-defined national interests as well as global nonproliferation efforts. It seems the administration’s congenital disdain for Western European allies is obscuring its view of the simple fact that economically coercing these aids Russian geopolitical aims — specifically, its opportunistic efforts to take advantage of fissures in Western interests to enable its return to global prominence.
Michael Kofman has described Russia’s strategy as one of great power raiding, or using coercion to sidetrack Washington from its core interests and force it appease Russian interests, eventually culminating in a U.S.-Russian entente. As Kofman notes, “Raiding is an effective riposte to a strong but distracted opponent.” To counter this strategy, the United States must limit the number of fires it is fighting in different places. In short, it should not play into Russia’s hands by fomenting friction with European countries — the allies that allow America to remain the world’s dominant power. Russia’s seeks to change this status quo and hasten the transition to a multipolar order, in which its own power is magnified.
Imposing financial penalties on European firms will undercut trust at a time when the transatlantic community faces a clear threat from a raiding Russia and is concerned about America’s commitment to collective defense. Prioritizing the Russian threat over the Iranian one not be interpreted as giving Iran a free pass for its actions in the region. Iran’s support for destabilizing policies in the Middle East is precisely why the nuclear deal remains important. The JCPOA cemented U.S. escalatory dominance over Iran by removing the notional threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon.
Before the United States withdrew, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom engaged in serious talks with the Trump administration to reach consensus on extending limits to Iran’s nuclear program and restricting its ballistic missile program. Trump didn’t take “yes” for an answer. Instead, he chose to abrogate the deal and, later, antagonize allies even further with the threat of secondary sanctions. Particularly against the background of other U.S.-European tensions, these decisions have exacerbated European anxiety about American security commitments.
Strategy often involves choosing the least bad option. The Trump administration, like all those before it, faces choices about the severity of the various threats it faces and must decide which, and how many, resources to allocate to them. The fact is that Russia poses a greater threat than Iran — and is able to impose a greater negative cost on the United States. Resourcing and decisions about alliance management should reflect this reality.
From a Collective Approach to Unilateral Abrogation
The administration’s core problem is that to Europe, Iran no longer poses a collective security threat. Before the JCPOA was concluded, the shared fear of an Iranian nuclear weapons program helped to overcome intra-European tensions about imposing sanctions. Thus, the imposition of sanctions was a collective choice, even if it took some diplomatic cajoling to align U.S. and European policies.
Now, U.S. policy is instead aligned with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel, all of whom oppose a diplomatic solution to the Iran issue and in fact sought to spoil the negotiations. Israel, in particular, used the threat of violence to try and shape U.S. positions, while the Saudi Arabia implicitly threatened to decouple from the United States and pursue closer ties with Russia. The Obama administration sought to manage regional allies with a strategy of inducement, centered around a massive increase in weapons sales. The Trump administration simply chose to become a spoiler, and impose demands that the other parties to the nuclear deal could not meet.
Trump has taken a fundamentally unilateral approach at odds with the previous consensus approach to managing a shared proliferation threat. Iran has upheld its commitments to the JCPOA so far, but the current U.S. position gives Iran an easy out to stop complying.
It is hard to see how Washington could galvanize collective action for a military strike, or even a return to the sanctions the United States and the European Union jointly imposed in 2012 (and lifted in 2016). This has left Washington with sanctions as the only way to force Iranian and European compliance with the Trump administration’s Iran policy. But this blunt instrument undermines relationships with allies, who worked with the United States on enforcement, got Iran to comply with a nonproliferation agreement, and are now watching their ally try to “fix” something that isn’t broken.
Back to the Future: Refocusing on Russia
Rather than driving a wedge between itself and Europe on Iran, the United States should focus on a shared concern: Russian aggression on the periphery of the NATO alliance and its efforts to influence outcomes in Western elections. Setting aside Trump’s absurd theatrics at the NATO summit, the allies in Brussels did manage to agree to a forward-leaning “Strategic Concept” that builds on recent collective efforts to deter Russian action along the alliance’s eastern flank. However, there is more work to be done — and that work will require continued U.S.-European engagement on collective defense and shared diplomatic efforts to address Russia’s violation of various international agreements.
Deterrence in Europe is well-studied. A key question, never decisively answered, is how the threat of strategic nuclear weapons use can deter conflict in Europe without the conflict escalating to include Russian retaliation against the U.S. homeland. Europe has always had to grapple with the credibility of the American commitment to collective defense. For much of the Cold War, the Western assumption was that nuclear weapons were needed to offset Russian advantages in conventional forces. Now the opposite is true: Russian is conventionally weaker than NATO and it uses nuclear weapons to deter conventional and nuclear attack and enable its raiding strategy.
The other post-Cold War change stems from the expansion of NATO membership, which has resulted in a handful of militarily weaker and geographically vulnerable Baltic States along the periphery of Russian territory and the larger western European states farther away. NATO must to manage these internal divergences over the Russia threat, all the while deterring Moscow. Russia, by contrast, does not have to worry about alliance management, and can instead punish countries along or near its periphery for cooperating with the United States, as was the case in Montenegro, Macedonia, and Estonia, and further west in France, the United Kingdom, and Germany.
The United States has traditionally managed intra-NATO divergences through consensus building and reassurance. At the working level, this continues. In the “Strategic Concept,” for example, the allies committed “to increase responsiveness, heighten readiness, and improve reinforcement.” This clause may seem like mere bureaucracy-speak, but it is actually of great importance: In the event of conflict with Russia, NATO forces — which suffer from declining readiness standards — would have to surge east. That requires unglamorous but vital investment in European infrastructure, as well as legal assurances that equipment would not be held up crossing European borders. NATO has made strides, agreeing to Enhanced Forward Presence, or the placement of multinational battlegroups in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. These moves are clearly aimed at deterring Russian conventional attack while also signaling that Western European and North American militaries will deploy in NATO’s east to reassure its most vulnerable members.
NATO countries also reaffirmed the role of nuclear weapons in deterring Russian attack and explicitly noted Moscow’s violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Russia has reportedly developed a land-based cruise missile, which the treaty bans. Moscow also used New START’s upper limits on strategic delivery vehicles to its advantage by developing a ballistic missile that effectively replicates the SS-20, the intermediate range ballistic missile destroyed under the treaty’s guidelines.
The concurrent development of long-range ballistic missiles and an SS-20 clone allows Russia to hold NATO airbases in Europe at risk with a dyad of ground-based missile systems, an uncomfortable echo of the Cold War. These Russian capabilities have both a military and political purpose: Building systems to target Western Europe could resurrect the classic “nuclear coupling” problem. During the Cold War, the United States had to signal to Moscow that any use of nuclear weapons in Europe would invite American retaliation, even if it meant reprisal strikes against the U.S. homeland. To send this signal and assuage NATO, Washington positioned nuclear weapons and dual-capable aircraft to deliver nuclear weapons.
Today, the coupling challenge is slightly different. NATO has to account for the possibility that Russia could engage in aggression in the Baltics while holding airbases in Western Europe hostage to missile attack. The U.S. role is critical for political reassurance, given how difficult it would be for NATO to protect its easternmost members from Russian attack. The United States, as the alliance’s largest and most important member, must signal that an attack on the eastern flank will escalate and result in a collective response. In short: use the threat of collective conventional reprisal to deter attack in a vulnerable piece of geography. And yet, following the NATO summit, Trump questioned why U.S. soldiers should die for Montenegro and continues to lambast allies for free riding on the American security guarantee. This rhetoric exacerbates the coupling challenge and enables Russian strategy.
Just a few days ago, the German daily Welt am Sonntag published a front-page column asking: “Do we need the Bomb?” The author, Christian Hacke, makes the case that Germany needs to develop nuclear weapons because the U.S. security commitment is no longer viable. The story, while hyperbolic in its conclusion, illustrates the broader European worries about deterrence, the Russian threat, and the role of the United States.
Given the obvious concerns, a key U.S. foreign policy priority should be to reassure its closest allies and prevent concerns about “decoupling.” The worst thing to do would be to sanction European central banks for dealings with Iran, risking fissures in relations with NATO allies in a misguided effort to deal with the far less acute threat of Iranian actions in the Middle East.
The U.S. does have vested interests in pressuring Iran, including on the illegal shipment of ballistic missile to Yemen, to ensure that Tehran upholds its nonproliferation commitments, and to compete with Iran in Iraq. However, these efforts are less important than the necessity of retaining close U.S.-European ties to challenge Russia. A policy appropriately focused on Russia would help to reassure allies, shape European debates about defense, and continue the positive trends outlined in the NATO Strategic Concept. This approach would hinder Russia’s goals of sowing global discord to hasten the end of American unipolarity and using coercion to punish U.S. allies. The immediate effects of a further downturn in U.S.-European ties may not be immediately visible, but would signal that Washington remains distracted and without a strategy to manage the new Russia challenge.
Don’t Trade Tallinn for Tehran
Europe has demonstrated a sustained commitment to addressing American concerns about Iran’s development of ballistic missiles, regional policies, and nuclear program after the JCPOA expires. In the short term, the United States should forego sanctioning Europe and re-commit to joint talks on the Iran question. It should use the appearance of tougher, coordinated actions to de-escalate with Iran. This would keep Iran bound to its nonproliferation agreements while imposing a collective cost on Tehran for policies Washington finds destabilizing. It would be unwise to trade Tallinn for Tehran letting a thousand smaller fires distract from the biggest one. Relying only on coercive tools threatens a key enabler of U.S. power — a strong transatlantic security architecture — and could encourage allies to take steps to be more independent of Washington.
A more autonomous Europe, wary of reliance on the United States, hastens American decline and enables Russian resurgence. Thus, while seemingly a separate issue, coercing Iran may have implications for the trajectory of the current U.S.-Russia competition. A distracted United States, wedded to a policy of coercion and bent on forcing allies to adhere to its view of the world, operating unilaterally and with little regard for critical institutions like NATO, simply creates the conditions for a raiding Russia to exploit.
Aaron Stein is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
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