Despite Cracks in EU Front, Iran Nuke Deal Hanging by Thread
While European nations triggered a dispute resolution mechanism in response to Iranian violations, few analysts believe Brussels will abandon the accord
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – commonly referred to as the Iran nuclear deal – is teetering on the verge of collapse after three European countries triggered a dispute resolution mechanism in the wake of a series of violations by the Islamic Republic. Under the terms of the deal, officials from Britain, France and Germany must now convene with counterparts from the other parties to the accord – namely, Russia, China and, of course, Iran – thus initiating a mediation process that could last months.
The move by London, Paris and Berlin comes just weeks after Tehran announced that it would no longer abide by any of the negotiated restrictions placed on its uranium enrichment. This, in turn, followed other breaches by the Islamic Republic, including, perhaps most significantly, the resumption of nuclear activities at the underground Fordow facility.
In a statement, the Europeans lamented that they had “therefore been left with no choice, given Iran’s actions, but to register … our concerns that Iran is not meeting its commitments under the JCPOA and to refer this matter to the Joint Commission under the Dispute Resolution Mechanism.”
While the process could lead to the “snapback” of economic sanctions that were lifted as part of the agreement, the EU’s foreign policy chief already made stark that this was not the aim. Rather, Josep Borrell said that Brussels was simply using the tools available to it to continue working within the framework of the JCPOA.
Nevertheless, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson threatened a “serious and strong response” before qualifying that his country’s government was “fully ready to answer any goodwill and constructive effort” that preserves the pact. More severe was a subsequent warning by President Hassan Rouhani that European troops in the Middle East could now be “in danger.”
Accordingly, Europe’s ability to reconcile differences with Tehran is far from a fait accompli, especially as cracks appear to be emerging in Europe’s previously united front. Case in point: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s assertion this week to the BBC that he is open to the idea of scrapping the JCPOA in favor of what he termed “the Trump deal.”
Notably, his comments came shortly after London’s ambassador in Tehran was arrested for attending a vigil for those killed in last Wednesday’s downing of a Ukrainian-operated commercial jet by Iranian missile fire, but which ultimately descended into an anti-government protest.
“Johnson does seem ready to embrace a more robust approach to Iran which might include imposing permanent restrictions on its uranium enrichment and ballistic missile programs as well as curbing its terrorism in the Middle East,” Benjamin Weinthal, a fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told The Media Line. “These are policies that should be assumed by the Germans and the French but there is a contradiction because their joint statement explicitly rejected the adoption of [US President Donald] Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign.”
As such, Weinthal believes that the activation of the dispute mechanism is a double-edged sword.
“In an attempt to rein in Iranian jingoism, it represents a serious warning that Tehran’s actions have finally reached a tipping point for European powers. The problem is that the Iranians are enormously skilled negotiators so they will try to draw out the process at least until the US presidential election,” Weinthal predicted. He added that in the meantime Iran would likely seek to “exploit the dispute mechanism in order to extract concessions from Brussels.”
Weinthal concluded that Tehran has “gutted” the JCPOA to such a degree that the Europeans need to pursue an improved deal that would prevent Iran from obtaining, in perpetuity, a nuclear weapon. “They really need to crack the whip,” he said. “The latest development is a good first step, but you are dealing with a regime that is wildly out of control so mediation decoupled from punitive economic measures is not going to work.”
For his part, President Trump in May 2018 withdrew Washington from the JCPOA and reimposed crippling economic sanctions on Iran. Since then, tensions between the rivals have progressively risen, reaching a crescendo earlier this month with the assassination of Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani in a US drone strike. Thereafter, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps launched a coordinated ballistic missile attack on two Iraqi military bases housing US soldiers.
“We fully support the decision by [Britain, France and Germany] to initiate the dispute resolution mechanism,” a US State Department spokesperson said in a statement following the revelation. “We believe further diplomatic and economic pressure is warranted by nations,” it added. The wording is widely being construed as a renewed push by President Trump to induce European capitals to follow his lead.
“The United Kingdom is leaving the EU shortly and it is in a vulnerable position. Therefore, Prime Minister Johnson’s [comments] may be [a sign] that he is trying to realign his policies with those of the US, as Britain will depend on President Trump to sign a trade agreement, for example,” Prof. Yossi Mekelberg, a senior consulting research fellow in the Middle East and North Africa Program at the London-based Chatham House, explained to The Media Line.
“Whereas the Trump Administration has used harsh rhetoric and has taken aggressive measures against Iran, if there is a belief that the nuclear agreement needs adjustments then interested parties should sit down and take the next steps toward achieving a broader rapprochement while de-escalating tensions. This may not be the US and UK position, but seemingly remains the focus of other European nations,” Mekelberg said.
Indeed, few believe that the EU will end up abandoning a deal into which it has invested huge amounts of political capital.
“The European Union’s position all along has been that the nuclear deal is very important and a major success [due to Brussels’ extensive role in devising it],” Dr. Oded Eran, a former Israeli ambassador to the EU and prior to that a deputy chief at Israel’s Embassy in Washington, told The Media Line.
“The Europeans have a fundamental opposition to the use of force,” he noted, “and thus prefer diplomatic and other means before even considering the military option. So, while a message was sent to Tehran that there is a minimum threshold in terms of the obligations it must uphold, the step is probably the least harmful that could have been employed.”
In this respect, Dr. Eran likewise highlighted the procedural intricacies of mediation process, which all but ensure that it will take time for tangible progress to be made. “Plus, the Russians and Chinese will be involved and they will slow down any meaningful action against Iran, even as they encourage Tehran to return to abiding by the terms of the deal,” he said.
“The more important question, though, is how the Iranians currently assess their situation: that is, they are under pressure from all sides.”
Iran’s back is, in fact, up against the wall, a shift from just months ago when the Islamic Republic allegedly orchestrated numerous attacks on shipping vessels transiting vital Gulf waterways. At that time, the IRGC felt sufficiently emboldened to shoot down a US drone and was accused of planning and ordering, if not directly perpetrating, September’s strikes on critical Saudi oil infrastructure.
Now, the mullahs are absent the main cog in their complex network of armed proxies and political pawns, through which they exert regional influence. Iran’s inability to go toe-to-toe with the US military was blatantly exposed by its relatively weak retaliation to Soleimani’s killing. Meanwhile, the Iranian economy is reeling under the weight of US sanctions, and there exists a very real possibility that simmering internal unrest could boil over, not unlike in November when demonstrators took to the streets in over 100 Iranian cities.
Then there is Israel, which continues to conduct military operations in Syria to prevent Iran from establishing a permanent military presence there and from transferring advanced weaponry to its Hizbullah underling in Lebanon. Unsurprisingly, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Tuesday called on the EU to reimpose international sanctions on Tehran, while reiterating that the Jewish state “won’t allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons.”
Within this broader context, while this week’s decision by European nations may be remembered as a mere shot across Iran’s bow, it is nonetheless one more problem added to a growing heap of setbacks for the Islamic Republic that at some point is liable to reach critical mass.