UNITED NATIONS — A week of high-level meetings, speeches, and breakaway sessions at the United Nations is set to be the backdrop for Americans and Europeans alike digging in their respective heels on the Iran nuclear deal.
President Donald Trump centered his address to the General Assembly on sovereignty — specifically, on the idea that anyone who tried to dictate US policy through multilateral institutions or multinational agreements was a threat. And he tried to paint the Iranian leadership, which Trump has attempted to pressure since pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal this past spring, as a threat to the sovereignty of nations in the Middle East and around the world.
“Iran’s leaders sow chaos, death, and destruction. They do not respect their neighbors or borders, or the sovereign rights of nations,” he said. “Instead, Iran’s leaders plunder the nation’s resources to enrich themselves and to spread mayhem across the Middle East and far beyond.”
Since leaving the nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the US has reimposed sanctions on Iran that had been lifted under the deal and threatened new ones.
But French President Emmanuel Macron, in his speech just a few hours later and subsequent remarks to the press, held the US approach up to a mirror: It was the United States, and not the Iranians, who were threatening sovereignty, both by trying to hurt Iran’s economy and by threatening to sanction those European companies that continued to do business with Iran.
“What will bring a real solution to the situation in Iran and what has already stabilized it? The law of the strongest? Pressure from only one side? No!” Macron said in his address.
Macron elaborated on the theme when speaking with reporters, saying that — despite Trump’s call for Europeans to get more of their energy supply from the United States — Macron would demand “real sovereignty, French and European sovereignty,” where energy was concerned. Asked about the consequences of the American approach to Iran on French companies, Macron said that he has little doubt the Trump administration will reimpose sanctions on the fourth of November — the date by which the administration has said it wants countries to have crude oil imports from Iran down to zero. And he knows that France and Europe cannot keep the largest and most international (and exposed) companies from leaving Iran.
But, he added, he believes France, working with Germany, the United Kingdom, the European Union, China, India, Russia, and regional partners, has constructed a “viable trade solution.”
Macron was likely referring to a special payments channel announced by the European Union’s foreign minister, Federica Mogherini, the evening before. The new mechanism would legally allow trade and financial transactions with Iran to continue, skirting Washington’s reach and sanctions. The “unilateral US decision” had such an impact on European business that Macron considers it an act of “extraterritoriality,“ he said.
The United States, however, could expand its sanctions to target the mechanism. Whether or not it will do so is as yet unclear, but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticized Europe for the plan on Tuesday. Speaking at the aptly titled United Against Nuclear Iran summit in New York, the US’s top diplomat called the plan “one of the most counterproductive measures imaginable for regional global peace and security” and said the plan supports the sponsoring of terrorism.
The question of just who is allowed to protect their own sovereignty is likely to continue throughout the week, including at Wednesday’s Security Council meeting on nonproliferation, which Trump will chair. Some have speculated that the subject — a pared-down topic compared to Iran, the original matter under discussion — could lead to a further rupture in US–European relations, with Europeans on the council contradicting and isolating the United States. One diplomat from a country seated on the council told BuzzFeed News that they were not walking in preparing for a confrontation, but to discuss nonproliferation. Still, the diplomat acknowledged, Trump had tweeted he’d be chairing a meeting on Iran, even after the reversal.
For his part, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani used his speech to call attacking multilateralism “a symptom of the weakness of the intellect.” He also criticized those leaders who have “xenophobic tendencies resembling a Nazi disposition.”