The Kremlin made little attempt to hide its irritation at, as well as its disagreement with, Secretary of State Pompeo’s speech on 21 May, which outlined U.S. policy toward Iran.
Moscow has tried to take advantage of the discord. In a press conference with Vladimir Putin in Sochi on 18 May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that the Iran nuclear deal was better than none at all. Nearly one year after hosting Vladimir Putin at Versailles, French President Emmanuel Macron went to St. Petersburg to address the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum on 25 May. He held direct talks the day before with Putin, during which the two discussed the crisis in Ukraine, the war in Syria, and, perhaps most pressingly, how to salvage the Iran nuclear deal. (Putin and Macron agreed to “build trust with Iran” in order to “expand” the JCPOA by adding a clause regarding Iranian ballistic missiles). In their joint press conference, Macron also emphasized France and Russia’s mutual interests, as well as their historic and cultural ties.
Visits such as those of Macron and Merkel would have been awkward just two months ago. At that time, tensions between Moscow and Europe had reached Cold War-era heights after the Skripal poisoning in the UK, an incident which resulted in the expulsion of more than 100 Russian diplomats from capitals across Europe and North America. Meanwhile, the attendance of other prominent world leaders at the Forum – including Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan, and IMF managing director Christine Lagarde – was at the highest level in five years.
Europe and Russia now find themselves on the same side of the Iran issue; but this is no rapprochement. They backed opposing sides in the ongoing war in Syria, and Europe (along with the U.S.) continues to impose heavy sanctions on Moscow over its 2014 annexation of Crimea. Differences over Syria and Ukraine are likely to continue, even as Europe and Russia continue to cooperate when it comes to Iran. But the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal is only one aspect of the troubled state of the transatlantic alliance. The Trump administration has taken several actions that anger the Europeans, especially withdrawing from the Paris Accord on climate change. These disagreements provide grist for anti-Americanism and the appeasement mill in Europe, which has enough adherents even in the best of times and provides openings the Kremlin can exploit. A maximum degree of unity among allies is one of the best antidotes to countering Putin’s revanchist, threatening, and destabilizing moves.
Photo credit: Kremlin.ru