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The US Iran snapback fiasco — a view from Brussels

The U.S.’s push to activate the snapback — re-imposition of the U.N. Security Council sanctions on Iran lifted as a result of the nuclear agreement known as the JCPOA — officially certified the diplomatic failure of the U.S. Iran policy.

Not only Washington’s chief rivals Russia and China, but also its closest European allies — the E3 of Britain, France and Germany — explicitly rejected the notion that the U.S. continued enjoying rights under the JCPOA even as it unilaterally withdrew from that agreement in 2018.

Both the EU high representative for the foreign policy Josep Borrell and the E3 issued statements immediately after the snapback effort clearly ruling that the U.S. was no longer part of the JCPOA, and thus its move had no legal value.

The E3’s letter to the UNSC outlining the reasons why the U.S. has lost its legal rights under the JCPOA looked more like a mini-lesson in international law. This is a fitting culmination of the EU/E3 opposition to Donald Trump’s four-year-long efforts to kill the JCPOA and replace it with the regime change policy in all but name.  

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s accusations that the EU/E3 was “siding with the ayatollahs” ring hollow and hypocritical. They are more a testament to his diplomatic incompetence than to European perfidy. 

European leaders like French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel tried to accommodate the Trump administration on Iran as early as in 2018. They offered to enlarge the nuclear discussions to include the aspects of Iran’s policies that they, too, found problematic, such as Tehran’s ballistic-missile program and regional activities. Britain and France also worked for a compromise in the UNSC on prolonging the arms embargo against Iran that could be acceptable to both the U.S. and the Russian-Chinese tandem.

The U.S., however, consistently showed that it was not interested in a deal; only unconditional submission to its will would suffice. Although one can make a case that a robust European pushback would have been preferable to the efforts to appease Trump, those attempts in hindsight have an undeniable value of clearly placing the blame for a trans-Atlantic rift squarely on Washington. The whole Iran saga shows that for the EU to play an autonomous international role is not a luxury or a product of some ideological anti-American obsession, but a strategic necessity.

Iran deserves credit for helping to sustain this European position by exercising strategic restraint in the face of endless American provocations. Its violations of the nuclear agreement have been measured, calibrated and reversible. This is relevant, because it would be a mistake to take Iran’s eternal fealty to the JCPOA for granted.

Due to the lack of economic benefits from the JCPOA, the terms of political debate in Iran veered steadily towards more hawkish options, such as abandoning the JCPOA altogether, and even withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty. By refraining, for now, from taking these steps, Tehran has allowed more space for diplomacy.

This space has to be used without delay. The European leaders deserve credit for clearly rejecting Washington’s campaign to destroy the JCPOA. However, the specific measures they have adopted to protect the JCPOA, such as the so-called blocking regulations and INSTEX, a special trade mechanism with Iran, have so far failed to translate into serious benefits for Tehran.

Neither has Macron’s idea of offering Iran a 15 billion euro-worth credit prospered as a result of U.S. opposition. In fact, the European companies ran away from Iran as soon as the Trump administration merely threatened — completely illegal — sanctions against doing business in that country. Although decisions of that nature are solely up to the firms to make, European governments arguably failed to provide enough legal clarity and protection to them. Now, to prevent  the U.S. snapback from becoming a de facto reality, the EU/E3 needs to finally get serious about living up to its side of the JCPOA beyond simple assertions, as welcome as they are, that the snapback is legally null and void.

A Biden victory in the U.S. presidential elections in November would facilitate that task by potentially removing at least some of the unilateral U.S. sanctions — if indeed he lives up Democratic Party’s promise to rejoin the JCPOA. However, to have real impact, such a move would have to happen fast and without any additional strings attached, such as attempts to squeeze more concessions from Iran as the price for Washington’s return to the deal. Europeans should make this point forcefully to the Biden campaign. There is no more time to be lost in pursuit of a “better deal.”  Even attempts to do so would most likely lead to a further hardening of the Iran’s position.

If, however, the U.S. elections produce Trump-II instead of Biden-I, the EU/E3 will have no choice but to realize that it no longer has an option to wait out an aggressively unilateralist American administration for a return to business as usual.  It will have to recognize that defending its interests and values is not cost-free. That means committing financial resources to sustain the JCPOA — by offering Iran the economic dividends it is entitled to as part of the deal in return for Tehran reverting to full compliance with it.

And if this would lead to a further rupture with the Trump administration, so be it: the last four years, culminating with the snapback move, amply demonstrated that it has zero interest in taking the concerns of its European allies seriously. Time for Europe, then, to chart its own course.

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the S&D Group and the European Parliament.

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