Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin reported this week on a new plan being hatched by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) two prominent Iran hawks, to supposedly kick-start the Iran diplomacy.
Their plan foresees a path to a “new Iran deal” that would involve Iran and its Persian Gulf neighbors permanently forswearing enrichment of uranium in exchange for safeguarding their right to a peaceful nuclear program and limited sanctions relief for Iran. Broader sanctions relief would be on the table in exchange for further Iranian concessions on its ballistic missiles program and support for regional allies like Hezbollah and Shiite militias in Iraq.
Reportedly, French, German and British officials, representing the three European signatories (E3) of the original nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), got interested in the plan after it was presented to them by Graham and Menendez at the margins of the World Economic Forum in Davos.
Such interest is understandable. After years of piling up sanctions and “maximum pressure,” any talk of diplomacy with Iran coming from Washington is welcome in Europe. However, judging by what has transpired in the media so far, the Europeans should discard the Graham-Menendez plan as unrealistic at best and malicious at worst.
The basic premise of the new agreement is that Iran has to give up its enrichment rights. Yet such demand, as is widely known, was exactly the reason why a nuclear agreement proved so elusive for more than a decade prior to the JCPOA. The Obama administration recognized that, and pragmatically agreed to caps in Iranian enrichment combined with intrusive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog. Demanding zero enrichment from Iran would push all the players back to the pre-JCPOA status. That is an obvious non-starter for Iran. Even a symmetric commitment from its Persian Gulf neighbors won’t sway Tehran. Unlike Iranians, their Arab neighbors do not possess any enrichment capacity, so for Iran to give up its own would be seen as a unilateral concession.
Moreover, linking any broader prospects for sanctions relief to Iran giving up, in addition to its enrichment rights, its ballistic missiles program and ties with its regional allies, is likewise dead on arrival. The only framework in which Iran would ever agree to discuss these key pillars of its defense strategy is a regional one, whereby Western support for Iran’s rivals, such as Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, would also have to be brought to the table. Any progress in this area can only be achieved through years of painstaking multilateral negotiations and confidence-building measures in the region, not through one-sided concessions from Iran (or any other actor).
It is doubtful that such seasoned politicians as Graham and Menendez don’t understand that. Yet it’s probable that the proposal is specifically designed to elicit Iranian rejection so that it could then be used to “prove” that it is Iran that closes the doors to diplomacy and provide the Europeans with an alibi to unambiguously side with the U.S. For the E3, that could offer a superficially attractive way out of its JCPOA conundrum. The French, the Germans, and the British could blame Iran for being unreasonable in losing a “chance” to re-engage with the U.S. diplomatically. That would remove a powerful irritant in transatlantic relations that the Iran issue has become. And the E3 would be able to shift the blame from its own failure to effectively uphold the agreement to the Iranian intransigence. That would then be justified on the grounds that Iran is a bad actor anyway — in fact, aside from the nuclear issue, E3 concerns on the Iran’s missiles program and its regional role are closely aligned with those of Washington.
Yet such a strategy carries considerable risks for the E3/EU. First, pretending to try diplomacy in order to make it fail leaves no other options than outright war, or further tightening of sanctions, which is a war by different means that can at any time degenerate into a real “hot” war, as nearly happened after the U.S. assassinated the Quds Force General Qassem Soleimani. The EU would then find itself in a worse situation: not only unable to prevent a war that would have dramatic consequences for its own security, but also losing whatever remains of its dwindling leverage in Tehran, in addition to having none in Washington.
Second, even in the unlikely case of Iran bowing under pressure and accepting a new deal that would radically curb its defenses, such an arrangement would be unstable and short-lived. Just as in civil law, agreements signed under intimidation or threats are more susceptible to collapse, so in international relations, nations never recognize legitimacy of deals imposed on them under duress. They will conspire and strive to shake them off at first opportunity. But they tend to have long memories as to how others behaved during their moment of weakness. For the EU to side now with Trump would mean to effectively “lose” Iran for generations to come.
Third, the E3/EU has no reason whatsoever to help President Trump during an election year. In fact Graham made it explicit that he acts on Trump’s behalf. The president is unwilling to start a war that may harm his re-election prospects. So cajoling the world into embracing his policies on Iran can be sold as a diplomatic triumph, a victory without war. But Trump has consistently showed nothing but contempt for the EU, treated it as a foe, and actively sought its disintegration, through his explicit support for Brexit. So why would the EU do anything that could facilitate Trump’s re-election?
The EU should instead drag its feet till November, and hope that with a new Democratic president the JCPOA could be revived. That would be a sign that the EU is indeed learning to speak the language of power as its foreign policy chief Josep Borrell wants it to.
This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the S&D Group and the European Parliament.