The Iran nuclear deal has been as lifeless as the surface of the moon ever since Donald Trump pulled out of it in May 2018. Iran’s behaviour ever since — the drone strike on Saudi oil production facilities, the seizure of a British-owned oil tanker, the launch of a new generation of centrifuges to enrich uranium — only added to the deal’s Dodo-like status.
Over the weekend it looked as if the European response would be the diplomatic equivalent of necromancy. ‘We agreed that we should do anything to preserve the deal, the JCPOA,’ Angela Merkel said in a joint press conference with Vladimir Putin. ‘For this reason we will continue to employ all diplomatic means to keep this agreement alive, which is certainly not perfect but it is an agreement and it comprises commitments by all sides.’ The powerful reasoning skills that make Merkel a heroic figure the world over were on full display here, as she rightly pointed out that the agreement is…an agreement. In a call with Vladimir Putin, again playing the role of guardian of the world system, Emmanuel Macron of France expressed a similar desire to safeguard the deal.
Barely a day passed before the Europeans appeared to flip their position. Yesterday, France, Germany and the UK triggered the deal’s dispute mechanism, a move that lead to textbook threats from the Iranian government. It may be the last shovel load of soil tossed over the deal’s coffin. In an ideal world, France, Germany and the UK would like to see Iran come back to the table, though whether Iran would accept the kind of concessions demanded of them were this to happen seems unlikely. It was left to Boris Johnson to articulate what ought to happen next, given that there is no ideal world:
‘If we’re going to get rid of it, let’s replace it and let’s replace it with the Trump deal. President Trump is a great dealmaker, by his own account. Let’s work together to replace the JCPOA and get the Trump deal instead.’
Johnson’s words might be the first example of Britain’s post-Brexit independent foreign policy. On one hand, Johnson was happy to join the Europeans in triggering the dispute mechanism. On the other, he was able to align with what Trump probably wants: a fresh deal, not a new war, and the diplomatic cover that negotiations with Iran would provide for extracting American troops from Iraq.
Delicately balancing European and American interests has been a hallmark of British foreign policy since 1917. Brexit is returning Britain to this traditional posture, awkward contortions, occasional discomforts and all. One feature of the Remainers’ grinding campaign to reverse Brexit has been the claim that British diplomatic influence would decline. British Europhiles are unhealthily obsessed with the notion that Britain must ‘punch above its weight’. Clearly these political pugilists never watch boxing; punching above your weight — as Britain did in Iraq and Afghanistan — is a reliable shortcut to being knocked out. For the Europhiles, post-Brexit Britain would be something like one of Philip Larkin’s more morbid poems, a wintry, lonely island staffed by spivs, crooks and tarts, ‘the first slum of Europe’, living out its wretched senescence with only porridge and boiled mutton for dinner.
This was always a peculiar vision. Britain, along with France, is the only European country with a military that doesn’t specialize in advanced wicker-basket making and cheerful Alpine yodelling. Johnson has a better working relationship with Trump than either Macron or Merkel. At this moment it seems that Britain has just as much leverage, maybe even more, outside the EU rather than inside, as British voters were assured for decades. Macron vowed to reform the EU and failed. Merkel will be out of frontline politics in 18 months. In this vacuum Johnson, as he has shown this week, has freedom to manoeuvre.
As for Trump, he is surely aware that there is powerful evidence that starting a war with Iran will ruin his chances of re-election. He has failed to enact most of his campaign promises: no new infrastructure, a fraction of the border wall built, no new deal to replace Obamacare. If he fails to live up to the only promise he has managed to keep so far — no more dumb humanitarian wars in the Greater Middle East — he will be toast. And if he can extract American troops from Iraq under cover of new negotiations with Iran, he can butter up the electorate too.