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Confronting Iran, US tests diplomatic strength without unity

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Beyond outlining harsh measures to constrain Iran, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's speech Monday at the Heritage Foundation seemed to imply a fundamental question about US foreign policy: Can it achieve key goals without a coalition of its most powerful allies?

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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivers remarks on the Trump administration's Iran policy at the Heritage Foundation in Washington on May 21, 2018.

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British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson tried to be as polite and diplomatic as possible in assessing the Trump administration’s post-nuclear-deal Plan B for dealing with Iran.

Point 1: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – who on Monday announced the new plan, which aims to “crush” Iran with “the strongest sanctions in history” – is “a great guy,” Mr. Johnson said.

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Point 2: That said, the new plan faces a steep uphill battle – particularly in bringing on board the international community, without which any plan to constrain or alter Iran’s behavior cannot succeed.

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The new US vision appears to fold several issues – “ballistic missiles, Iran’s behavior, Iran’s disruptive activity in the region, nuclear activity” – into a “new jumbo Iran negotiation,” Johnson said Monday, adding that “I don’t see that being very easy to achieve in anything like a reasonable timescale.”

Mr. Pompeo may have hoped for better. But the reality is that the threat of deep divides between the US and its allies, and primarily with the three European countries – Britain, France, and Germany – that are party to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal had loomed large as President Trump pledged over the past year to exit the deal if it couldn’t be fixed to his satisfaction.

Now that the US is out of the deal, the fissures have begun to form. Pompeo seemed to recognize that, calling for formation of a broad coalition of countries that would supersede the small group of six world powers that reached the 2015 deal with Iran.

But the Trump administration may soon discover how effective it can be in addressing a key national-security concern like Iran without its most powerful allies at its side.

Moreover, an administration that has often been more confrontational than cooperative with the community of nations may now pay the price as it seeks to build the kind of broad coalition the US has generally turned to over recent decades to secure its foreign-policy goals.

Partners beyond Europe

Pompeo used his appearance Monday at Washington’s Heritage Foundation to point out the differences with the Europeans over how to address the full range of Iran’s “malign behavior” – and to shift the focus to other partners he says see eye-to-eye with the US on Iran.

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“We focus on the Europeans, but we have scores of partners around the world who have similar concerns” to ours, Pompeo said in unscripted comments following his speech.

As for the Europeans, they made it clear in a statement from the European Union’s foreign affairs chief, Federica Mogherini, that the EU “will remain committed to the continued full and effective implementation” of the Iran nuclear deal – and that the Europeans see the US as the odd man out for having abandoned a deal “that belongs to the international community.”

Some foreign policy analysts predict that the principal beneficiary of the splits now forming over Iran will be Iran itself – or at least the hardliners in the regime. They foresee Iran moving to take advantage of an international community distracted by its divisions and unable to effectively address Tehran’s provocations.

“What the Iran deal had going for it and what brought Iran to the negotiating table was the solid unity and very tough sanctions of the international community,” says Robert Einhorn, a former State Department special adviser on nonproliferation. He had a key role in fashioning and then selling internationally the economic sanctions the US promoted in 2012 to get Iran serious about negotiating constraints on its nuclear program. “But a US that is out of the deal is going to have a very difficult time reassembling the united sanctions coalition from before,” he adds.

Beyond that, he says Iran is going to do everything it can to paint the US as the outlier, and to exploit the deepening divisions in an international community that once confronted it from a united stance.

“They want to isolate the US and get the Europeans on their side,” says Mr. Einhorn, noting the Europeans’ stated objective of preserving a deal they maintain Iran is upholding. “It will be a huge propaganda victory for the Iranians if the Europeans side with them.”

Iran wasted no time in stoking the irritation the world often experiences when it feels dictated to by the US – an irritation that had been soothed to some degree by the US commitment to the Iran deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action [JCPOA].

The world will “not accept” American unilateralism, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani declared shortly after Pompeo’s speech Monday. The era of the US making decisions for the rest of the world “is over,” he said.

Choice between US, Iran

Yet given a choice between the US and Iran, most countries – certainly including the Europeans – are still going to choose the US, some foreign-policy analysts say. That opens the door for a diplomatically engaged US to make its case and build the “broad coalition” Pompeo envisions, they add.

“I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, but even under Donald Trump the US is still the indispensable nation … that for many countries is a valued strategic and commercial partner,” says Mark Dubowitz, who heads the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank favoring tough sanctions on Iran. “In any US-Iran escalation, they aren’t going to risk those vital ties [to the US] for the Iranian regime.”

The Trump administration should focus on winning over the national leaders of its European allies (as opposed to EU leaders like Ms. Mogherini), Mr. Dubowitz says. “If it were up to me, I’d have [French President Emmanuel] Macron convene this broad coalition in Paris with the strong support of the US,” he says. Mr. Macron “has said he, too, wants a comprehensive plan for dealing with Iran, so let’s encourage that.”

Einhorn, now a senior fellow in arms control and nonproliferation at Washington’s Brookings Institution, says that at the end of the day, Europe’s largest companies and banks will sever their commercial ties to Iran rather than risk running afoul of new and re-imposed US sanctions.

But on the other hand he foresees little or no effort by many other countries – China and India, for example – to comply with US demands concerning Iran. And that lost unity will make confronting Iran more difficult.

“We’re going to find the world divided into different camps now on Iran,” Einhorn says. “The Trump administration is asking for much, much more than what was contained in the JCPOA, and with much less leverage than we had” with pre-Iran-deal sanctions, he says. “They’re going to find it’s hard to do more with less.”