The Strait Gate: How Europe Can De-escalate U.S.-Iran Tensions

September 20, 2019

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear
  • Military


Quentin Lopinot


Center for Strategic and International Studies

With the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) only a few days away, speculations and expectations of an encounter between the U.S. and Iranian presidents have been upset by the attack against Saudi Arabian petroleum facilities on September 14. This possibility emerged after the G7 Summit in Biarritz, France, when the surprise guest appearance of Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif, who met with French president Emmanuel Macron and foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian as well as British and German officials, sparked a much-awaited glimmer of hope to de-escalate tensions in the Gulf. President Trump made some rather encouraging statements: “We’re looking for no nuclear weapons, no ballistic missiles, and a longer period of time . . . We can have it done in a very short period of time. I really believe that Iran can be a great nation,” very much in line with President Macron’s own comments: “Two things are very important for us: Iran must never have nuclear weapons, and this situation should never threaten regional stability.” Yet after active discussions between Tehran and Paris, and Paris and Washington, regarding the opening of a $15 billion credit line, it was recently reported that so-called “mediation efforts” initiated by the French president in Biarritz have failed.

These successive developments made for many eye-catching headlines either saluting major breakthroughs or definitive setbacks. But both of these perspectives might be missing the point. The initiative launched during the G7 is not as much a one-shot “mediation” attempt rather it is a pragmatic and incremental process intended to break the escalation of tensions. Indeed the fundamental parameters of the crisis remain unchanged: the United States is pursuing a systematic policy of maximum pressure to make Iran yield and agree to a new deal; Iran is increasingly violating its commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), will not discuss any new deal without getting substantial financial relief, and appears willing to dramatically escalate the situation to obtain it. Any expectation that these policies can be reversed in the short term, either through persuasion, intimidation, or some silver bullet meeting on the margin of UNGA, can only be disappointed.

Instead, a substantial diplomatic initiative is needed to focus on the most critical problem: that Washington’s and Tehran’s positions are so irreconcilable that they can only produce further escalation, and, ultimately, confrontation—although both Iran and the United States have repeatedly communicated that they wish to avoid a conflict. To this end, it is urgent to come up with some form of pressure relief valve. Realistically, it can only work if it is de facto compatible with the fundamental parameters mentioned above (i.e., if it does not imply that either the United States or Iran capitulates to the other’s demands) and if an external actor contributes to this effort.

Europeans, and more specifically the E3 (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom), are uniquely positioned to engineer a diplomatic process that would create breathing space. Like Iran, they are committed to preserving the JCPOA. But more importantly, like the United States, their strategic objective is that Iran never develops a nuclear weapon. And they share with both countries the objective of preventing further escalation into a direct military conflict.


Read the full report at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.