Trump wants NATO more involved in the Middle East. What does Europe want?

The World
A close-up of President Donald Trump raising his index finger.

US President Donald Trump speaks during an event to announce proposed rollbacks to the National Environmental Policy Act regulations in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on Jan. 9, 2020.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

US President Donald Trump on Thursday said he supported expanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to include Middle Eastern nations, as the United States seeks to limit its troop footprint globally.

Trump proposed increased NATO involvement in the Middle East on Wednesday when he addressed the Iranian strikes against US troops in Iraq, carried out in retaliation for a US drone attack that killed top Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani.

Related: Trump says no casualties in Iran attacks, does not want to use more force

In a scripted speech on Wednesday, Trump made two appeals to Europe to help with Iran and the Middle East, saying the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, known as the JCPOA, was broken.

"The time has come for the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Russia and China to recognize this reality," Trump said. "They must now break away from the remnants of the Iran deal, or JCPOA. And we must all work together toward making a deal with Iran that makes the world a safer and more peaceful place."

Related: Neither the United States nor Iran wants to go to war,’ says former ambassador

The vast majority of NATO member countries are European. The World's Marco Werman spoke with Fabrice Pothier, a French diplomat who served as head of policy planning for two NATO secretary generals, Jens Stoltenberg and Anders Fogh Rasmussen, about the concern rising among EU allies following the escalation, and what to do next. 

Marco Werman: How are Europeans viewing the events of the last week?

Fabrice Pothier: Well, I think with a lot of surprise and concern. Concern because you had a pretty quick escalation between the United States and Iran, a surprise attack by the United States in killing one of Iran's top generals. So I think they were holding their breath to see what's next. Clearly yesterday, President Trump has called it a draw and both countries seem to be willing to de-escalate or at least no longer escalate. So that's the, I would say, the good news in that pretty intense last few days. But I think everybody is holding their breath on what's next in terms of potential escalation. I'm not sure Iran has said their last word. And also what does President Trump really want? Does he really want Europe to step in and to do what?

Related: Escalating conflict with Iran: What's happening? 

Do you have an understanding what the Trump administration's policies are in the Middle East?

I think policy is a bit of an ambitious word when it comes to the Trump administration's overall approach to the region, quite frankly. I think it's made of sudden moves, very transactional approach. But the deeper train, however, and the one that is more worrying, is I think there is a general retrenchment of the United States from the region. And actually that trend started before the Trump administration with the Obama administration. But I would say that Trump took it to the next level. And therefore, it's true that the burden is increasingly on the European allies on what exactly, you know, what pieces they can pick up and what can they do.

Related: Iran investigation says airliner caught fire before crash, Ukraine outlines theories 

Let's look specifically at the Iran nuclear deal. France, along with the other European partners — Germany and the UK — was one of the six nations that helped negotiate the JCPOA with Iran. Why is France sticking with the deal?

Well, it's not only, France. Quite frankly, I think the UK is also sticking with the deal. Germany, China, Russia — don't forget that China and Russia have also signed the deal. I think everybody is sticking with the deal because, so far, it was the best or the least bad option to make sure that Iran would not go nuclear. Now, clearly, the US administration decided to exit the deal and, by a sense, to undermine it. And now we are seeing some outcome of that decision. Iran is crossing some of the red lines contained in the deal by deciding to increase some enrichment of uranium. And Iran has clearly stepped up its regional dangerous activities. So I think the deal was maybe not perfect, did not cover Iran's regional activities, which are problematic, but at least there was something on the table that kept Iran sitting at the table, if you will. Now, Iran has left the room. And I think we are a bit without any means to bring them back into negotiation.

Related: Killing Soleimani was a ‘hasty’ decision, says former defense undersecretary 

On Wednesday, Trump also made an appeal to NATO saying, "Today, I am going to ask NATO to become much more involved in the Middle East process." How can NATO help in the Middle East?

Well, first, what does President Trump really mean here? Does he mean NATO's getting in the Middle East to do more fight[ing] against terrorism? I think potentially there could be some support for that among European allies, mostly by training local forces, for example. Or does he mean using NATO to contain and deter Iran? It's a totally different ballgame. And I think him, having talked about NATO yesterday in the context of his statement on Iran, is probably making a lot of European allies very nervous because the last thing they are ready to do is to use NATO to basically deter against a regional power like Iran.

Related: The history of US-Iran relations: A timeline 

What are European leaders looking for right now and the kind of standoff between the US and Iran?

Frankly, I think they are looking for de-escalation, which seems to be where we are now, which is good news. But everybody knows that the US does not really have a clear strategy in the Middle East, let alone vis-à-vis Iran; it just has pressure points — economic sanctions, military pushback, like we saw over the weekend. But for what? What's the desired end outcome here? And I think everybody is holding their breath on, you know, what's going to be the next move. So that's one thing. The second thing, I think we need to be honest also with the limits of European governments here. Everybody here in Europe is scrambling for trying to have some influence. And the reality is that Europe, despite its commitment to the JCPOA, despite some European countries' involvement in the wider Middle East, Europe has very little say and influence on what's happening. And this is also a pretty big reality check for people here in Europe that, you know, we can talk about being more geopolitical, but at the first crisis, the only thing we can do is to issue statements.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Reuters contributed reporting. 

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