How Europe helped save Obama's historic nuclear deal with Iran
Nader Habibi, Brandeis University
Republicans in Congress failed to block the Iran nuclear agreement from taking effect by the September 17 deadline, which means the Obama administration can now focus on implementing the historic accord.
On the surface it might appear that the key players who lobbied lawmakers the hardest for the congressional vote on this issue were the Obama administration and the pro-Israel lobby.
However, the role of European members of the P5+1 (France, Germany and the United Kingdom) should not be ignored. These countries influenced the decision of the members of the US Congress both directly and indirectly, and it’s possible the deal wouldn’t have survived without their efforts.
Europe embraces accord
Unlike the United States, there was no substantial debate about the July 14 nuclear deal in the parliaments of these three countries – known as the E3 – and there was no significant political opposition either.
To the contrary, the business community in each country lobbied its respective government to initiate negotiations for restoration of trade and economic ties with Iran as soon as the sanctions are lifted. Prior to the escalation of sanctions against Iran, Germany, France, the United Kingdom and Italy were among Iran’s largest trade partners.
Opposition to the nuclear agreement in the US, which began well before the deal was signed in Vienna, did not go unnoticed by these European governments. Rather it appears that there had already been discussions between US Secretary of State John Kerry and E3 foreign ministers on how the Europeans can help the Obama administration in Congress.
European lobbying in defense of the agreement began almost immediately. The British, French and German ambassadors in Washington paid several visits to Capitol Hill. These visits were primarily focused on Republican members of the congress, such as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker.
In addition, the German Ambassador, Peter Wittig, hosted a reception for several Republican representatives in his residence and to make these effort even more effective, the European Union’s ambassador to the United States, David O’Sullivan, also contacted several members of the congress in support of the deal.
Europe lobbies hard for accord
This European initiative continued throughout August with more visits to the Hill, and frequent warnings by European leaders and high-ranking officials. Besides Republicans, they also lobbied Senate Democrats, joined by Russian and Chinese diplomats to warn against the negative consequence if the deal was rejected.
In early August, Phillip Ackerman, the second-ranking diplomat in Germany’s embassy in Washington, also warned of very negative consequences if the US congress rejected the agreement. Moving into September, as the date of the Senate’s 60 days for review were almost up, E3 leaders David Cameron of the UK, Francois Hollande of France and Angela Merkel of Germany appealed directly to Congress not to reject the deal in a September 10 editorial in The Washington Post.
In addition to this direct European lobbying, President Obama benefited indirectly from intense European efforts to send diplomatic and trade delegations to Iran after July 14.
The European governments did not waste any time in trying to gain a foothold in Iran’s export and investment market. They engaged in a fierce competition with one another as well as with Russia, China and other Asian countries to send government-sponsored trade delegations to Tehran, as detailed in the timeline at right. Many European and Asian companies that had suspended their trade and investment projects in Iran because of the sanctions are eager to resume their activities. Needless to say, these initiatives were warmly welcomed by Iran.
Providing proof for Obama’s warning
These European initiatives do not violate the economic sanctions, which are still in effect. They are exploratory and preparatory in nature. Nevertheless, they have demonstrated the seriousness and commitment of European governments in restoring their role in Iran’s emerging market to pre-sanction levels as soon as possible.
These large-scale and highly visible delegations also demonstrated to the US Congress that European allies are eager to lift the sanctions – and that they will pay a heavy price and face considerable pressure from their respective business communities if Congress were to reject the nuclear agreement. In other words, these diplomatic and trade initiatives gave credibility to President Obama’s warning that if Congress rejects the agreement, Europeans will not join a new round of sanctions.
While there is no formal evidence that the Obama administration had any discussions with European governments about the impact of these visits on US Congress, it is hard to imagine that the credibility that these visits offered to Obama’s argument went unnoticed by the White House.
Furthermore, during the course of nuclear negotiations, Kerry developed a very close working relationship with his European counterparts. Routine and frequent consultations between Kerry and E3 foreign ministers continued after July 14, when the deal was finalized. The political consequences of these European visits to Iran must surely have come up in these conversations.
So as President Obama writes his thank you notes to the Democrats in Congress who kept his most important foreign accomplishment intact, he should reserve a few of those cards for his partners in Europe who helped make it possible.Comment on this article
Nader Habibi does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.