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24th Jun 2018

EU friends of US tread softly on Iran

  • Linkevicius (l) and Czaputowicz - "not just eastern [EU] countries" shared their views (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Pro-American EU states are saying US ties are more important than Iran amid disagreement on the nuclear deal.

"When you look at the scope of economic relations between the European Union and the US and the European Union and Iran there's nothing to compare, in other words, we must rule out a possible EU-US trade war on Iranian sanctions," Lithuanian foreign minister Linas Linkevicius told EUobserver on Monday (28 May).

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  • IAEA just gave Iran its 11th all-clear since 2015 (Photo: IAEA Imagebank)

"Let's do our best in order to protect them [EU investors in Iran], to protect European economic interests in the [Iranian] banking system and transportation system … but let's take into account what's more important," he added.

"We shouldn't do this at the expense of euro-atlantic relations," he said.

The threat of an EU-US sanctions clash arose after US president Donald Trump walked out of the Iran nuclear non-proliferation deal earlier this month.

If the US fines European firms who began working in Iran after the accord was put in place in 2015 that could trigger EU counter-measures.

"There are some voices [in the EU], saying: 'Let's retaliate. These are our interests, so we must defend them', but this is not the way forward," Linkevicius said.

The minister spoke to EUobserver after listening to statements on Iran from his EU counterparts earlier the same day.

The French, German, and Italian ministers, whose countries' firms have the most at stake, did not attend the meeting, but Lithuania was not alone in wanting to prioritise US relations, he said.

"There were more countries [like us]. It's really not a single voice," he said. "It's not just eastern [EU] countries", he added.

The tension on Iran comes amid broader EU disagreement with Trump on climate change and free trade.

But Linkevicius said a soft approach might make it easier to revisit US decisions on climate and trade in future.

"Why am I saying this? After going to the US and meeting people from many different layers of the political map, I feel these issues are still high on the agenda. Let's protect what was invested," he said.

Friends of Trump

The Polish foreign minister, Jacek Czaputowicz, likewise "indicated the need to maintain … transatlantic relations" in Monday's talks, he told press afterward.

"Other [EU states'] remarks showed that countries which owed their security to the United States also spoke out in this way," he added.

"Many countries are against a confrontation with the US," he said.

The European Commission is updating an old "blocking statute" from 1996 that would protect EU firms in Iran from US sanctions.

But Poland proposed softer measures. "If there are losses for European firms engaged Iran, we should find a compensation mechanism," Czaputowicz said.

"I'm not saying Poland would be against European unity on this, but it merits further reflection," he said, when asked if Warsaw would veto the blocking statute.

Trump's EU friends already vetoed a statement on his decision to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a cardinal point of European foreign policy.

The blockers included the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and Romania, EU diplomats said.

More or less the same group - Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Poland, and Romania - also went against EU colleagues in a UN vote on the Trump embassy move in December.

Security first

The pro-US lobby made little mention of what might happen if Iran abandoned the deal and resumed its covert nuclear programme.

The accord sees UN sleuths from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) check on compliance, with the EU foreign relations chief, Federica Mogherini, noting on Monday that Iran had just got the all-clear in its 11th IAEA report.

"This is not about economic interest, it is about the security interests of the EU. In the absence of the nuclear deal with Iran, we believe the security of the region - and of Europe - would be at stake," she told press.

"Pressure in Iran is significant," she added.

The EU and US still had the same strategic objective," she said. "The first concern we share is one related to the possibility for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon", she said.

She also voiced sympathy with US concerns on Iran's role in Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen and on its ballistic missile programme.

But she defended the EU blocking statute, which would, she said, give "a legal shield for those companies who are legitimately investing in Iran".

Member states' experts and EU officials will coordinate work on a "package of EU steps" on Iran, Mogherini said.

Whack-a-mole

Confrontations in EU and US policy keep popping up like whack-a-mole since Trump took power last year.

Poland's Czaputowicz noted, earlier this week, that the US might also impose fines on Anglo-Dutch, Austrian, French, and German firms investing in Russia's Nord Stream 2 (NS2) gas pipeline to Germany.

If Trump torpedoed NS2 it would make Lithuania and Poland happy because, they fear, the pipeline would undermine their energy security.

The US has NS2 sanctions laws in place, but Germany recently began construction of the project anyway, in what could prompt a new spiral of retaliations.

"This would become another issue for the European Union to find a position on," the Polish minister told the Reuters news agency in Warsaw.

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