The Ukraine and Iran Intersection: Outcomes Can Define a Future of the Transatlantic Partnership

Seemingly unbound regional challenges have a potential to reshape the transatlantic partnership. With the “Ukraine crisis” in the European Union and the “Iranian nuclear deal” in the United States leading the political discussion, both cases have a capacity to reshape regional and international order as we know it built on the Western alliance. The objective of this article is to provide some evidence from the Ukraine crises and Iranian nuclear deal that could threaten the historic transatlantic partnership between the United States and Europe – one that is built on genuine common historical investments, not a speculation in international markets.

The Ukraine crisis derives from efforts to forge a closer political and economic union between the EU and Ukraine. The Eastern partnership policy was developed with the objective to maintain and strengthen stability in the EU’s East since the collapse of the Soviet Union to subsequently complete the Europe Whole and Free project as described by President Bush Senior in Mainz, 1989. The Eastern partnership policy refers to six countries – Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan in South Caucasus and Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus in a broader Black Sea regional perspective.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union the objective of United States foreign policy has been to stabilize newly independent states and rid them from weapons of mass destruction. The EU’s Eastern partners were a part of the new foreign policy approach. One of the results of American foreign policy was the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, signed in 1994.  The memorandum was signed in connection with Ukraine’s Accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). The Budapest memorandum was signed by Ukraine, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States. The agreement embodied a sovereignty and integrity guarantee to Ukraine for giving up its nuclear arsenal. More than a decade after signing the Budapest Memorandum signatories could not guarantee principles that the memorandum embodies.

 The “Iranian nuclear deal” is being thornily discussed in the United States. Nuclear military capability for Iran would be in a harsh contrast to the NPT principles. There is ambivalence in international community on how the “Iranian nuclear deal” should be perceived. The American foreign policy community as well as the international community is divided in hardline opposition and support of the deal with Iran - a diplomatic solution. There are consequences of the deal that has a potential to reshape a regional power balance in the Middle East and beyond. A complexity of the deal derives from the multiplicity of the American and Iranian bilateral relations since the Iranian revolution and American hostage crisis of 1979. David Crist in his 2012 book describes the more than 3 decade American history with Iran - a twilight war. An expert debate about the deal unravels hawkish and dovish views on how the Iranian nuclear question should be resolved.

Matthew Kroenig in his 2014 book “Time to Attack: The Looming Iranian Nuclear Threat” argues for a decisive military solution to the Iranian nuclear question. He argues that Iran can’t be trusted and compares it with North Korea – a country which cheated, purposefully ignoring international norms to acquire a nuclear military capacity. The American expert community resembles Koenig’s arguments that the deal with Iran is neither possible nor credible. Iran’s intentions to acquire nuclear a military capacity could be avoided with a limited military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities or a comprehensive and costly military operation – alternatives to the diplomatic solution.

Kenneth Pollack in his 2014 book “Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy” argues about the rationale behind the Iranian efforts to acquire a nuclear military capability. After all, Iran has been facing American opposition since 1979 and opposition from the international community since the imposition of economic sanctions by the United Nations in 2006. Potentially costly military solutions to the Iranian nuclear issue raise questions if Iran with nuclear military capabilities is a better or worse outcome. Pollack in his book and the Obama administration favor a diplomatic solution and the deal with Iran – Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran.

According to the present plan, Iran agrees to limit the amount and level of uranium enrichment, eliminate or transfer its stockpile of enriched uranium, close and limit some of its nuclear facilities, and continue its limited-level enrichment activities in designated locations. In return Iran will get gradual relief from the UN imposed economic sanctions and unfreeze its foreign assets. The only drawback of this deal, argued by the agreement opposition, is the perceived “North Korea cheating opportunity”.

There are several caveats that the transatlantic community should consider when constructing their foreign policy towards Ukraine and Iran:

First, the argument for Iran to acquire a nuclear military capability is supported by the inability of the United States and the EU to safeguard the principles of the Budapest Memorandum of 1994. In practice there is no rationale for any country to use nuclear weapons against another. Retaliation against such an unthinkable step would mean the elimination of such a rogue state as an international relations subject. Survival of the political regime and country is an objective of the present Iranian political settlement.  In case of Iran, the nuclear military capability would serve just enough to safeguard Iranian sovereignty and strengthen the Iranian political regime internally and against external influence. 

Second, there is a potential for a nuclear arms race within the Middle East. In the case that Iran acquires a nuclear weapon, Saudi Arabia could easily get one from Pakistan. There is a rumor that one nuclear warhead is stored in a Pakistani dungeon with “Made for Saudi Arabia” title on it. Nuclear Iran would alter the regional power balance with a potential for international repercussions. There would be additional costs to contain and balance more assertive, more nefarious regional powers.

Third, opponents to the United States could wish to acquire nuclear capabilities. Iran has already announced its intentions to export nuclear technology to Venezuela in a formal agreement. Nicolas Spykman’s 2007 book “America’s Strategy in World Politics: the United States and Balance of Power” describes American interests in preserving the international balance of power. American interests, according to Spykman, have been constructed to avoid American encirclement by hostile forces that could possibility control Europe, Middle East or East Asia. Encirclement and entrenchment of the United States could occur with the “North Korea cheating” problem left unsolved and the further exporting of nuclear weapons to South America. It would force American foreign policy to pivot to South America and leave the EU on its own with unresolved Ukraine-Russia, Georgia-Russia conflicts. Bret Stephens’ 2014 book “America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder” argues that Russia is well-aware that “Europe has no stomach” to act without the American support.  Without Pax-America there is no more American security guarantee for Europe.

 In conclusion, the foreign policies of the EU and the United States have reached a critical intersection which has a capacity to part the transatlantic allies. There are ways that the EU could contribute to the American strategies of containment in its Eastern neighborhood:

1.    To contain Russia, the EU could use the same strategy Russia has used so efficiently using oil leverage. Divide and rule has so well split the EU members when Russian interests have been at stake. Russian friends and foes have been awarded lower gas prices and punished adversaries with higher gas prices. Only through bilateral interaction with European states can Russia gain leverage over the political process within the EU. Alexei Miller in 2009 demonstrated to Valdai discussion club participants at Gazprom headquarters the Russian ability to cut off gas supplies to any European country with a wink of an eye. Europe so well could use the same reversed strategy to gain leverage over Russia.  It is important to consider that 30% of Russian GDP income is from fossil fuel sales and 65% of its exports are from the oil and gas sales. The objective of such a policy would not be a default of Russia but compliance with international norms and treaties that Russia has signed, such as the Budapest Memorandum of 1994. Normative power Europe would gain a credibility the West has lost over the last two decades;

2.    European NATO member states should re-assess their priorities when it comes to defense spending. NATO-Europe is spending 1,5% of the GDP for defense while North America was spending 3,5% in 2014 according to information from the official NATO site. Transatlantic security structures could become handy to counter emerging security challenges in Middle East. Such trends would strengthen the transatlantic alliance and improve an efficiency of the EU’s and the American foreign policies worldwide;

3.    More vigorous efforts to coordinate foreign policy efforts through international American and European-built organizations might sound trivial. But at this point this approach is desirable when challenges are increasing in numbers and scope but a struggle for resources is becoming harsher.  The Iranian nuclear deal could come to fruition because American and European foreign policy efforts were coordinated within the P5+1 coalition (the UN Security Council members and Germany). Broad coalitions should be applied to emerging and existing security challenges more than ever in cases like Ukraine or Iran;

4.    There are very few international treaties that have lived through decades and are considered as credible. The NPT is among such cases. Transatlantic partners should stand for norms that safeguard international order and partnerships. In case or Iran and Ukraine there is ambivalence in rhetoric from American and European leaders. Any diplomatic efforts should be backed with credible means of enforcement of norms to which transatlantic partners have themselves.

The article is as fragmented in terms of geography, political and analytical views and challenges as the international community is right now. There are few solutions to the most complex regional security challenges where the options for action might range between bad and worse choices only. A closer convergence of American and European foreign policy efforts would strengthen the historic alliance and improve diplomatic bargaining position, backed by the capabilities the United States and Europe would share. If both partners opt for reverse position, soon the Eastern Europe could face a need to increase national military capabilities more than it is requested by NATO informal agreements. After all, the collective security system works best when the BYOB[1] principle in international relations is respected by all!


[1] BYOB – Bring Your Own Booze is often used in a student community to emphasize necessity to contribute student’s own resources to a socialization of a community

Published 20 September 2015

Author Sandis Šrāders