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In his book The Art of the Deal, Donald Trump wrote that in order to seal a deal, he sometimes has to “be the bad guy.” If Trump has a strategy when it comes to Iran, he’s certainly adhering to that playbook. On Friday, he announced that the United States would not certify Iran’s compliance with the nuclear agreement, saying that to do so would be to “continue down a path whose predictable conclusion is more violence, more terror, and the very real threat of Iran’s nuclear breakthrough.”
If Trump’s threats are a way to extract additional concessions, he is soon going to learn that every bad cop needs a good cop. When it comes to Iran, Trump will find that Europe is his best bet to offer carrots as he wields sticks. Europe’s growing footprint in the Iranian economy is the best available leverage to change Iran’s behavior. Despite the swagger of the regime in Tehran, the state of the economy remains its Achilles’s heel, and the Iranians are loath to see European businesses abandon them again. The key for the Trump administration will be persuading Europeans that it’s in their own interest to pressure Iran.
Trump needs allies to contain Iran
From Europe to Russia to China, there is virtually no appetite to kill the nuclear deal, which is delivering on its narrowly defined mission: keeping Iran from being able to weaponize its nuclear program. However, Trump may find sympathy among America’s European allies for his pressure tactics if he can persuade them that his strategy fits into a broader plan to tackle Tehran’s other questionable behavior.
Both the United States and Europe share common concerns about Tehran’s regional agenda — including its military interventions in Iraq and Syria, its virulent opposition toward Israel’s right to exist, and Tehran’s record of repressive policies at home.
Put simply, Iran it is a status quo power but often acts as an insurgent force whose actions undermine the interests of Western states and their Middle Eastern allies. While the Trump administration and the Europeans do not agree on the details of each point, there is enough overlap that the two sides might be able to concoct a common to-do list vis-à-vis Iran — but only if Washington doesn’t void the 2015 nuclear agreement.