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Iran Deal Makes EU a Mideast Power Broker

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition” and “Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem -- and What We Should Do About It.”
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The European political project is looking rather shaky in the wake of the will-they-or-won't-they Greek bailout. But you’d never know it from the Iran deal announced Tuesday. In its fine print, the nuclear pact gives the European Union the immediate power to make the treaty into an offer the U.S. can’t refuse. And, going forward, it gives the EU the crucial vote in determining whether Iran is complying with its promise not to make a nuclear weapon.

Start with the outsize role the EU has in, essentially, forcing Congress to ratify the Iran deal. Paragraph 19 of the treaty says the EU will terminate sanctions when Iran implements its side of the deal, as judged by the International Atomic Energy Agency. That means if Iran decides it wants the deal, the EU is committed to ending sanctions. And an end to EU sanctions means, in practical terms, an end to U.S. leverage on Iran. A sanctions regime is close to useless without European participation.

QuickTake Iran's Nuclear Program

In other words, even if Congress were somehow to block the U.S. from approving the deal by overriding a presidential veto, Iran and the EU could just go ahead with the same deal, and ignore the U.S. Iran would get most of what it wants, namely an end to economic sanctions.

That’s why the U.S. can’t really refuse the deal. The coming debate in Congress may have the appearance of partisan drama. But don’t be fooled: You’ll be watching a shadow play.

No doubt President Barack Obama and his administration are a bit relieved that this provision is in the treaty, because it effectively guarantees success. And its supporters are already somewhat shamelessly pointing to Paragraph 19 as a reason for Congress to approve the deal.

But you can see how the EU members also benefit. Most of them never wanted to sanction Iran in the first place. The EU is at its most cohesive when its members’ economic interests overlap -- and from an economic point of view, none of them wanted to lose trade with Iran. EU sanctions against Iran were the product of intense U.S. pressure to get the EU to put an American political interest ahead of trade. Now the EU will be thrilled to get back to business.

Then there’s the verification role that the deal gives the EU going forward. According to Paragraph 78, if the IAEA isn’t satisfied with Iran’s compliance, it must go to a “Joint Commission” of eight members. The commission can “advise on the necessary means to resolve the IAEA's concerns” -- if and only if at least five members agree.

Iran is a member of the commission, as is Russia and China -- so it’s likely that three votes would almost automatically take the Iranian side in any dispute with the IAEA. That leaves the other members of the joint commission: France, Germany, the U.S., the U.K. and the EU itself. The U.S. can be expected to side with the IAEA, and it’s likely that its traditional European allies would agree. That gives the decisive fifth vote to the EU.

No doubt the U.S. assumes that the EU will do what its most powerful and important members want. Seen in this light, the treaty is using the EU as a kind of proxy mechanism to give the U.S. the capacity to push Iran not to defy IAEA inspectors.

But as the events surrounding the Greece bailout have recently shown, the EU is not only France, Germany and the U.K. Other member states have leverage on selected issues. And arcane inner processes dictate how the EU makes foreign policy decisions.

The EU faces major political challenges in the near term. The “four horsemen” of an EU apocalypse are said to be Greek exit from the euro zone; British exit from the EU; Russian aggression, particularly in Ukraine; and the price of migration from North Africa.

One of these horsemen -- Greek exit -- has been forestalled. But the anger and resentment that the bailout process engendered, especially between Germany and Greece, bodes ill for the EU as a political body, rather than a common economic market. The Iran deal treats the EU as an important global player. Here’s hoping that trust is justified.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Noah Feldman at nfeldman7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net