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Europe’s misguided plan to revive the Iran nuclear deal

Germany’s foreign minister recently proposed conditions that JCPOA opponents have pushed for years.

Analysis | Middle East

As President-elect Joe Biden reaffirms his intention to rejoin the nuclear agreement with Iran known as the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action), a cold shower fell from a least-expected corner -— Germany, a signatory of the agreement and part of the European trio (E3), with Britain and France. In remarks to the German magazine Der Spiegel, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas warned that a return to the original JCPOA “will not suffice.”

European security interests, Maas said, require a “nuclear agreement plus” with Iran. It would include strict limits on Iran’s ballistic missiles program, which he said “threatens the entire region,” and changes in Iran’s policies in the Middle East.

Maas also made it clear that these positions were “coordinated” with Britain and France. Only when prompted by the interviewer did he recognize that additional incentives would also need to be offered to Iran. He called a relaxation of U.S. sanctions a “decisive factor” in conveying to all JCPOA parties, including Iran, Washington’s seriousness about diplomacy.

Miguel Berger, secretary of state of the German foreign office, reinforced Maas’s message by pledging a “firm reaction” to Iran’s role in the region “with sanctions if necessary” and an “offer for [a] regional security set-up” as an incentive. Significantly, these remarks were likewise made in the context of a need for an “updated JCPOA.”

Germany’s framing, presumably with British and French support, is deeply worrying.  Concerns about Iran’s ballistic missiles or regional role are not new, and have been voiced by the E3 consistently. However, it’s the first time that a German foreign minister has so explicitly called for a “better deal” with Iran.

There are several major problems with this proposal. First, there was a reason why the JCPOA addressed only Iran’s nuclear program. The Germans know it very well since they have been engaged in the nuclear diplomacy with Iran since 2003: the nuclear issue was deemed the biggest threat.

It was imperative to close all pathways to an Iranian nuclear bomb and do so while avoiding another disastrous war in the Middle East. It required 12 years of strenuous efforts to reach the JCPOA. Burdening it with additional concerns would have simply ensured that no deal would have been reached at all. It is as true today as it was then: a return to a full compliance by both Iran and the United States with the JCPOA is already strewn with enough political obstacles in Washington and Tehran. Adding non-nuclear provisions would put the whole enterprise at far greater risk.

Second, Maas’s statements either completely misread or deliberately ignored the political mood in Tehran. The Rouhani-Zarif team is already severely weakened by the failure of the JCPOA to deliver economic benefits to Iran -— their principal selling point of the agreement to the public.

In reaction to the assassination — apparently by Israel and possibly with U.S. assistance — late last month of a top Iranian nuclear scientist, the parliament swiftly adopted legislation that would further expand the country’s nuclear program and restrict access to key sites by inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency. While the Rouhani administration opposed this legislation, it may still be obliged to implement it early next year. Influential voices in Iran are also demanding compensation from Washington to make up for the economic losses incurred by Tehran resulting from the Trump administration’s violation of the JCPOA as the price for Iran’s renewed compliance.  

If returning to full compliance with the JCPOA is increasingly politically costly in Tehran, then negotiating a “JCPOA plus” involving Iran’s essential defense capabilities is a non-starter. It was unlikely even in the best of times.

Iran is not going to proceed with what it sees as its unilateral disarmament, particularly in the face of its regional rivals, like Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, arming themselves to the teeth with modern Western weaponry. Iranian concessions would have to be reciprocated by its rivals.

Unilateral demands on Iran can only be pushed through coercive measures, such as those referenced by Germany’s Berger. If Iran’s record until now tells us anything, however, it is that it is much more likely to respond to pressure with defiance than submission.

Third, although Maas did mention the need for relaxing U.S. sanctions as part of the JCPOA’s revival, crucially he failed to say anything about its sequencing. Is that relief to be delivered at the beginning of the process of a U.S. return to the original JCPOA, to be followed by Iran’s return to full compliance?

Or will Iran be asked to roll back its advances in restoring its nuclear program to the levels required by the JCPOA as a pre-condition for the removal or easing of Washington’s sanctions?

Or would that relief come only after Iran complied with new demands, as suggested in Maas’s “JCPOA plus” notion? Berger failed to shed much light on this fundamental question, referring instead to the need to wait for ideas to come from the new U.S. administration. And the E3 joint statement on December 7 only urged Iran to return to a full compliance, without voicing any specific expectations from Biden. 

If the E3 are as serious about preserving the JCPOA as they claim in their statements, they should set aside any ambiguity and focus instead on pursuing that goal. Suggestions for any expanded or updated agreements, without first ensuring the revival of the original JCPOA, are counterproductive.

There is also no reason for Europe to defer to Biden’s lead on this. Having defended the deal for the last four years, it would be incomprehensible for the E3/EU to yield the initiative to Washington. On the contrary, Europe should focus its messaging on encouraging Biden to rejoin the JCPOA swiftly and unconditionally. That would be in Europe’s genuine security interest.

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

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas (Photo: photocosmos1 via shutterstock.com)
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