After weeks of simmering tensions between the European trio of Britain, France, and Germany (E3) and Iran over the fate of the 2015 nuclear deal, known as Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA), the Europeans finally decided to trigger the deal’s Dispute Resolution Mechanism (DRM) on January 14. If no mutually agreeable solution to the dispute is found, the matter will be forwarded to the UN Security Council (UNSC), which could lead to the resumption of UN sanctions against Iran. Should this come to pass, Iran has threatened to abandon not only the JCPOA, but also the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which would lead it to expel the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors currently verifying that Iran’s nuclear program remains peaceful. This would throw European Union-Iran relations into uncharted waters, and destroy all the progress achieved since 2015.
Since Iran started reducing its commitments under the JCPOA – 14 months after the U.S. pulled out of the deal altogether and re-imposed sanctions – the E3 have progressively moved closer to the U.S. position. Explaining their decision to trigger the DRM, the leaders of the E3 states pushed the narrative that they have fulfilled their obligations under the JCPOA and were left with no other choice due to Iranian recalcitrance. That is, at best, disingenuous. Yes, formally the EU lifted its nuclear-related sanctions against Iran, but by failing to stand up effectively to U.S. extraterritorial sanctions it has instead helped to enforce them. INSTEX, a special mechanism devised by the E3 to protect trade with Iran, has still not become fully operational nearly one year after it was launched. Even so, Iran announced that all of the steps it has taken to reduce compliance with the JCPOA are reversible once the other parties begin delivering on their commitments, and it has kept its cooperation with the IAEA intact.
The E3 decision to trigger the DRM looks more like an attempt to shift the blame for its own impotence onto Iran rather than a necessary act of last resort to save the JCPOA. There is speculation that this decision was spurred by an American threat to introduce 25 percent tariffs on European automobiles should the EU not submit to Donald Trump’s demand to abandon the deal. This, however, misses the point: the E3 was already moving in that direction before these threats were issued.
The E3 does want to safeguard the JCPOA. But power politics dictates its choices in terms of how to go about it. The U.S. is too powerful and important to take on, even if E3 diplomats know perfectly well that it was Trump’s decision to exit the JCPOA and ratchet up pressure against Iran that led the agreement to the brink of collapse. Iran, by contrast, is seen as a weaker party — with no real friends or allies and internally cornered by protests — and as a problematic actor anyway due to its ballistic missile program and regional mischief. Renewed protests over the authorities’ clumsy handling of the unintentional shoot-down of a Ukrainian airliner, which killed 176 people, have created an impression that the regime is back on the defensive, as during widespread protests in November.
With so many fronts open, the calculation seems to have been to force Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to drink his own “chalice of poison,” like his predecessor Ruhollah Khomeini did to end the war with Iraq, and settle for reverting to full compliance with the JCPOA even without any economic benefits.
This has proved to be a miscalculation. The Iranian government’s legitimacy may be contested by the many Iranians who feel alienated by its corruption, mismanagement and authoritarianism. But the Islamic Republic has shown resilience over the 40 years of its existence. Its imminent demise has been regularly predicted since 1979, yet the regime is still far from crumbling. Khamenei delivered an uncompromising sermon at Friday prayers on January 18, in which he offered not a hint of reconciliation with the protestors, let alone any intention to engage in a national dialogue over the myriad challenges faced by the Islamic Republic. Instead, he praised the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, callously downplaying its responsibility for shooting down the Ukrainian plane. This shows that, faced with crisis, Khamenei opts for the time-tested strategy of mobilizing his hard-core supporters instead of shoring up the regime’s support among the wider Iranian public.
This spills over to foreign policy as well. Khamenei dedicated some of his harshest remarks toward Britain, France, and Germany, accusing them of being America’s poodles. Oddly enough, however, he did not rule out negotiations with them, unlike with America. But these remarks did not offer any hint of concessions. If anything, they suggested a hardening of the Iranian position.
This means that by triggering the DRM, the E3 has maneuvered itself into an extremely precarious position. It can’t deliver economic benefits to Iran as long as it is unwilling to challenge the U.S., which makes any EU effort to persuade Iran to stay within the deal meaningless. Unless the E3 discovers the courage that has eluded it so far, it has set itself on a track toward joining the U.S. policy of maximum pressure against Iran, and has become a target for Iranian retaliation.
Many have suggested that the E3’s lack of political will to stand up to U.S. is the main explanation for this deplorable lack of European agency. There is, however, another reason, which cuts directly to the state of the European Union: the balance of power within the EU has shifted from communitarian institutions like the European Commission and Parliament back to national governments. This spells trouble for relations with Iran.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has been more conciliatory than the E3. He wasn’t enthusiastic about triggering the DRM. During the debate in the European Parliament on January 14, he challenged the opponents of the JCPOA to offer a better, more detailed alternative. And the European Parliament itself expressed strong support for the JCPOA, rejected U.S. sanctions, and called on EU bodies and member states to build an effective anti-sanctions firewall to protect EU interests.
Iran policy within the EU, however, is monopolized by Britain, France, and Germany. It is balanced by their much more developed bilateral relationships with the U.S., Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, all of which are hostile toward Iran. An example of this is the admission by the French president Emmanuel Macron in his annual speech to the army that a key reason for the French-led European Hormuz naval initiative is to reassure Saudi Arabia — which also happens to be one of the top clients of the French arms industry.
If other EU members do not wish to pay a price for the E3’s shortsightedness, they, together with the Commission and High Representative Borrell, need to exercise a moderating influence before relations with Iran definitely drift into turmoil.
This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the S&D Group and the European Parliament.