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Gulfs apart: How the Iranian crisis has split the West

TOPSHOT - Mourners carry the coffin of slain Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis towards the Imam Ali Shrine in the shrine city of Najaf in central Iraq during a funeral procession on January 4, 2020. - Thousands of Iraqis chanted "Death to America" today as they mourned the deaths of al-Muhandis and Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani who were killed in a US drone attack that sparked fears of a regional proxy war between Washington and Tehran. (Photo by Haidar HAMDANI / AFP) - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

The process of division did not start with Donald Trump, but his assassination of Qasem Soleimani has revealed the chasm between America and Europe, says JOHN KAMPFNER, with Britain adrift between the two.

In the language of modern relationships this would be called abuse. One partner is nervous and needy. The other is controlling and hectoring. Donald Trump to a tee, you might think. But it didn’t start with him. For decades, Britain has been a supplicant in its dealings with the United States, doing everything it can, to the point of humiliation, to retain its affection. Successive presidents have accepted the fealty with scarcely disguised disdain. The so-called special relationship has been a rhetorical construct to keep the Brits sweet.

The crisis over Iran and the targeted assassination of Qasem Soleimani has brought the mismatch to the fore. This is by no means the first such occasion, but it does herald a new low.

In this sorry saga, Britain is broadly aligned with France and Germany, in paradoxically the last tripartite initiative before the UK’s departure from the European family of nations on January 31. Paris and Berlin are used to arguments with Washington. Those governments long ago concluded that the Western alliance needed to be more dispassionate, less dependent. The French remember George W Bush on the eve of the Iraq war after president Chirac refused to lend his support. The moniker “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” is now seen as a badge of pride. The Germans were spared much of the invective. But it was an uncomfortable time for a country that has had to rely on the US for its security for the best part of half a century. Tony Blair became Bush’s best buddy but paid for it in terms of his historical legacy.

Since then these Transatlantic ties, individual and collective, have waned. With his “pivot towards Asia”, Barack Obama signalled that Europe would be less of a priority. Surprisingly for a man regarded as one of America’s most charismatic leaders, he struggled to hit it off with a series of prime ministers, presidents and chancellors. Angela Merkel was furious when it was revealed that the US had been listening to her mobile phone for years. Her relations with Obama went into deep freeze as she expelled the CIA station chief in Berlin. They recovered towards the end. The prospect of Trump taking office put everything into perspective.

One of the great humiliations was Obama’s treatment of Gordon Brown. British officials had made five attempts to secure a formal one-to-one with the president during a trip to New York and Washington. They even agreed to a policy change (on swine flu immunisation in Africa) in an attempt to land a joint appearance between the two leaders. Brown had to settle instead for a snatched conversation in a New York hotel kitchen. Number 10 denied it had been snubbed, insisting that Obama and Brown had had plenty of chance to talk as they had been sitting next to one another at a UN summit. He just didn’t have time for a bilateral. He did, though, for the Chinese, the Japanese and the Russians. “The special relationship is strong, it continues to strengthen,” Brown asserted, improbably. Relations hadn’t been so frosty since John Major was accused by Bill Clinton of helping the Republicans in the 1992 US elections (something Major denied).

All that was, of course, before the advent of Trump. His decisions may be mercurial, but his loyalties are consistent. He sprays invective towards leaders of democratic nations (Merkel one minute, Canada’s Justin Trudeau the next), while showering praise on the likes of Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un and Mohammed Bin Salman. His treatment of Theresa May, via a series of tweets, testified to this (plus his characteristic misogyny). A new low was reached when the British ambassador, Sir Kim Darroch, was forced to resign after his eminently sensible but critical assessments of the president were leaked to a Sunday newspaper. Trump lashed out at Darroch and May: “I told her how to do that deal, but she went her own foolish way – was unable to get it done. A disaster! I don’t know the ambassador but have been told he is a pompous fool. Tell him the USA now has the best economy and military anywhere in the world, by far and they are both only getting bigger, better and stronger.”

The world has become used to Trump’s vulgar language, almost taking it in its stride. His decision to take out Soleimani, a man who was effectively the number two in the power structures of a staunch enemy, was more dangerous than anything he has done so far.

Even before the attack, the West’s headline agreement with Iran – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – has been hanging by a thread. Brokered by Obama, the accord curbed Tehran’s nuclear weapons programme in return for sanctions relief. It was heralded by many as a breakthrough, but for Trump it was the “worst deal in history”. In May 2018, to the consternation of the Europeans, he announced America’s unilateral withdrawal.

He then slapped sanctions on Iran, and anyone trading with Iran. Europe has tried to keep lines of communication going with Tehran, but what little hope they had of salvaging something has gone with Iran’s announcement that it will not hold back its nuclear aspirations.

The assassination has been met with less than fulsome support from the countries the US president now regards as his closest allies – Israel and Saudi Arabia. He didn’t seem too phased by that. He told them seemingly in advance. Not so the Europeans. For the UK and for Boris Johnson, that will have hurt. Not that he will be showing it. The prime minister’s initial response, once he had bothered to come back from his Caribbean holiday, was to give qualified backing to the US assassination.

Even a bland joint communiqué by Britain, France and Germany – in which they called for “de-escalation” – was too much for the Trump administration. The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, responded with his characteristic bombast: “Frankly, the Europeans haven’t been as helpful as I wish that they could be. The Brits, the French, the Germans all need to understand that what we did – what the Americans did – saved lives in Europe as well.” With fears of a regional war, and with attacks on Baghdad’s Green Zone already starting, the Germans have served notice that they are planning to withdraw their small contingent in Iraq. The 400 British troops deployed in Iraq, under US command, are in more danger than ever.

The Europeans are holding out hope that the world can get through the next 12 months without a major conflict, that Trump will lose to the Democrat candidate in the US election, and that if that happens he will go quietly. Those are faint hopes. If Trump is re-elected, the EU will, through its collective decision making and economic muscle, at least be able to pose some kind of counter balance to the even more egregious excesses of a second term.

Eventually, it will hope that relations can be improved with a new president, but it is mindful that the ties that bind are looser than before. The UK’s dependency will increase only further. The more acrimonious and distant its relations with Europe become, the more it will have to fall back on Uncle Sam. It is desperate for a trade deal, almost at any cost. The poodle has become the lapdog.

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