Britain, France and Germany are three of America's closest allies, but they don't always act like it. Last week in Vienna, their foreign ministers met with the foreign ministers of China and Russia, strategic adversaries of the U.S., as well as the foreign minister of the Islamic Republic of Iran, a regime whose rallying cry for almost 40 years has been "Death to America!"
Their mission: To undermine U.S. policy; to relieve the economic pressure that the Trump administration is attempting to bring to bear on Iran's rulers in order to change their aggressive and lethal behavior both at home and abroad.
French, British and German leaders don't see the situation that way, of course. In 2015, they went along with President Obama's Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). They were displeased when Donald Trump called that deal a disaster, and angered when, two months ago, he withdrew from it.
They continue to insist that the JCPOA is a reasonable bargain. In exchange for economic benefits, Iran's theocrats have promised to slow — not end — their illicit nuclear weapons development program.
Often overlooked: Iran's theocrats don't actually acknowledge having a nuclear weapons program. Nevertheless, they are threatening to accelerate it if the Europeans don't fully compensate them for economic losses caused by the re-imposition of American sanctions.
Just prior to last week's meeting, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani phoned French President Emmanuel Macron and told him that the package currently on the table "does not meet all our demands."
One might wonder: In what kind of negotiation does one side make "demands" of the other? That perhaps occurred to French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian who complained to a reporter: "They must stop the threats so that we can find the solutions so that Iran can have the necessary economic compensations."
As last week's meeting concluded, that mission had not been accomplished. Federica Mogherini, the European Union's foreign policy chief, said only that talks would resume at a later date.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas was more candid. "We will not be able to compensate for everything that arises from companies pulling out of Iran," he said.
Not for lack of trying, however. On Sunday, the German publication Bild reported that Germany's central bank plans to turn over to Iranian officials 300 million euros in cash that will then be flown to Iran.
That Iran's rulers are in need of bundles of cash only highlights how weak their economy has become. Decades of mismanagement and corruption are the primary reasons. But re-imposed American sanctions — with new rounds to hit in August and November — are taking a toll.
Ordinary Iranians know whom to blame. They have been left in poverty and deprived of fundamental freedoms while the religious/ruling class has made itself ridiculously wealthy. Among the chants being heard in the streets: "Our enemy is right here! They're lying when they say it's America!"
They've also been chanting: "We the people don't have water!" That's partly because of a drought which the theocrats blame — can you guess? — on Israel, actually accusing the Jewish state of "cloud-stealing" and "snow stealing." (To be fair, if the Mossad can purloin 55,000 documents from a nuclear archive in Tehran, how tough could it be to seize and smuggle condensed and frozen water vapor?)
The billions of dollars provided to the regime by Mr. Obama could have been used to clean up water supplies and build desalination plants. Iran's rulers have had other priorities: supporting Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, Hezbollah, Shia militias, Houthi rebels, Hamas and even the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The theocrats have now issued a new threat that could cost a pretty penny: to block oil exports from their neighbors. "If Iran's oil exports are to be prevented," said Esmail Kowsari, a commander in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, "we will not give permission for oil to be exported to the world through the Strait of Hormuz."
The notion that cargo ships sailing through that strategic sea lane require Iranian "permission" is far-fetched. Should Iran's rulers make good on this threat, expect the U.S. Navy to take action to "ensure the freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce wherever international law allows," in the words of a spokesman for the U.S Central Command.
Meanwhile, even as Iran's rulers are insisting on their interpretations of international law, Belgian authorities are detaining an Iranian diplomat in connection with a plot to bomb a rally in France organized by an Iranian opposition group.
The State Department last week published a report on Iranian-sponsored terrorism in Europe between 1979, the year of Iran's Islamic Revolution, and 2018. It lists both completed acts and failed attempts carried out by Iranian intelligence agencies and Hezbollah, Tehran's Lebanon-based proxy, in more than a dozen countries. Britain, France and Germany are among them.
Iran's rulers, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted, have "brought suffering & death to the world & its own people. Just in Europe, Iran-sponsored assassinations, bombings & other terrorist attacks have scarred countless lives." He called on European leaders to raise this bloody history when they are interfacing with regime representatives.
At present, however, British, French and German leaders appear loath to offend Iran's rulers and anxious to accommodate them.
Which raises this question: If appeasement is the European policy toward the Islamic Republic now, what will it be if the regime achieves its ambition of becoming the nuclear-armed hegemon of the Middle East?