Last week the State Department announced that it was designating Iran’s Islamic Republic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization. Since then, Washington and Tehran have continued to hurl invective at each other, just as they have for the past 40 years.
On Sunday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif publicly asked the rest of the world to chime in on the U.S. decision. “Today . . . we will send messages to foreign ministers of all countries to tell them it is necessary for them to express their stances, and to warn them that this unprecedented and dangerous U.S. measure has had and will have consequences,” Zarif said in an interview with Iranian state media.
So far, that request seems to have gone unanswered. But Tuesday, the Iranians upped the ante by pushing a bill through parliament labeling all American forces in the Middle East as terrorists. It’s a move that epitomizes how reactionary regimes respond to external decisions they can’t control. The Iranian move heightens the emotionality of the moment and increases the possibility of conflict triggered by knee-jerk reactions.
Yet it’s also instructive to look at how other countries have reacted to the move. Most of the responses have been varied but predictable, and they help to illuminate the complex story of Iran’s geopolitical importance in an era of constant regional turmoil.
Neighboring Iraq, which has myriad allegiances, obligations and objections to both Washington and Tehran, made it clear that the move concerns them. “I won’t hide it from you. We tried to stop the American decision,” Adel Abdul Mahdi, Iraq’s prime minister, said the day after the announcement.
Mahdi has a front-row seat to the conflict between Iran and the United States, a significant amount of which has been taking place on Iraqi soil. He would obviously like to avoid an escalation in tensions.
“We have good relations with both, with Americans and with Iranians. And we are going to deploy all our efforts to ease and calm down the situation. It is not in the interest of any of the parties engaged,” Mahdi said. But he knows he has little say in the matter.
Leaders in the Persian Gulf Arab kingdoms and Israel, by contrast, are ecstatic.
“Thank you, my dear friend, the president of the United States, Donald Trump . . . for responding to another of my important requests,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted in Hebrew following the announcement.
The Saudi government was quick to offer its approval for the move, calling it a “serious and practical step” to counter terrorism. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has yet to make any public comments about the designation. But given his hard line on anything to do with Iran, it’s a safe bet that he welcomes the measure.
The move signals to both Riyadh and Tel Aviv that any perceived American pivot toward Tehran — which they so feared during the second Obama term — is ancient history. Their enmity toward Iran — and how they choose to manifest it — will go unchecked by Trump’s Washington.
Russia and China, meanwhile, have been mostly quiet, though they will probably spot strategic and financial opportunities in Iran’s increasing diplomatic isolation.
No surprises so far, right? But there’s one part of the world that deserves special attention on this front: Europe. You might expect the Europeans to express caution or muted displeasure over the American move given their continued adherence to the controversial nuclear deal. So far, however, they aren’t saying much.
Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, called his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron to complain, saying the U.S. move is “very provocative, dangerous and unprecedented in international relations.” According to reports, Macron showed little reaction, other than to urge Rouhani to release jailed human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh.
Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, who is viewed as having a constructive relationship with Zarif, has also been silent. Meanwhile, the U.K.’s approach seems to be a continued cautious engagement with Tehran, although they have “deep concerns” about the military wing’s regional meddling.
“We remain committed to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action for as long as Iran continues to implement it in full. This agreement is important for our national security as well as that of the region, and remains central to international efforts to halt nuclear proliferation. But we are clear that this commitment does not preclude us from addressing Iran’s destabilizing activities,” a foreign office spokesperson told me.
So, what does this prolonged silence mean for the future of the nuclear deal, trade relations and Europe’s continuing efforts to compel Iran to moderate its behavior?
It may be that European capitals tacitly approve of the U.S. move; perhaps they’re deliberating over a coordinated response. Or they may realize the smart play is to keep dialogue open with both Washington and Tehran — and they’ve decided that the best way to do that is to stay out of this one.