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Europe’s self-inflicted irrelevance on the Iran nuclear deal

The E3’s failure to stand up to Trump was compounded by a series of miscalculations in the six months since Biden took office.

Analysis | Middle East

The European signatories of the 2015 JCPOA, Britain, France and Germany, known as the E3, issued a statement on July 6 in which they responded to the IAEA’s latest report on Iran’s  enrichment activities. While, on the face of it, the statement looks like just another expression of “grave concern,” its timing makes it different. 

The talks in Vienna on reviving the JCPOA are on hold due to the transition of power in Iran from the Rouhani to the Raisi administration. E3 warned that the “time is on no-one’s side” and that Iran’s recent steps “threaten a successful outcome of the talks.” What, however, is so striking is how irrelevant the E3 has made itself in ensuring that outcome. Although there are objective reasons for this, this irrelevance is, to a large extent, self-inflicted.

The main stumbling blocks — lifting of U.S. sanctions against Iran, Iran’s return to full compliance, and reassurances that Washington won’t unilaterally withdraw from the agreement in the future — are all for Washington and Tehran to sort out. That’s mostly due to the fact that it was the U.S. that introduced the secondary sanctions that prevented Iran from enjoying the economic benefits that were expected to accrue to it by signing and abiding by the JCPOA. 

On the other hand, however, the E3/EU’s failure to effectively shield trade with Iran from Washington’s long reach exposed its inability or unwillingness to sustain the JCPOA. Had the Europeans been more effective and resolute, the question of a U.S. participation would not have been so central. Unwittingly, it has sent the message that, should a future Republican president withdraw from or otherwise violate a restored deal in 2024 or later, the E3/EU cannot be counted on to meaningfully save it. That provides a fodder to the JCPOA skeptics in Tehran: why make concessions if the other side can’t be trusted to respect its own commitments? 

The E3’s failure to stand up to Trump was compounded by a series of miscalculations in the six months since Biden took office. At its root lay a conviction that Iran was sufficiently cornered by Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign that it would seize any opportunity to strike a deal with Biden. The E3 estimated that Iran’s weakness gave the West leverage to force Tehran to accept additional concessions. This explains why the German foreign minister spoke of a need for a “JCPOA plus” that would also address Iran’s ballistic missiles, while French President Emmanuel Macron suggested that Saudi Arabia had to be included in the talks. 

These ideas were never going to work as Iran has repeatedly ruled out unilateral concessions on its means of deterrence — missiles and regional alliances. The Biden administration understood that and focused on a resumption of the JCPOA in its original scope and format. Whatever the message the E3 intended to convey with its “tough line” on Iran, it ended up  being seen as unhelpful by other parties in the talks. 

A second major E3 miscalculation was to underestimate the shifting political mood in Tehran. The signs that Trump’s pressure was undermining the moderates were long apparent. The parliamentary elections in 2020 produced a heavily conservative-dominated legislature. In June 2021, the hardliners recaptured the one institution of the state they didn’t control – the presidency – by stage-managing the election of their fellow conservative, Ebrahim Raisi. As recently as mid-March, the outgoing Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif, warned the Europeans that a transition of power in Tehran would complicate negotiations. 

These shifts, however, failed to instill any sense of diplomatic urgency within the E3. The calculation was that, given the country’s dire economic straits, any Iranian government will be keen on getting the sanctions removed. What, however, it didn’t take into account was that a new administration might seek its own version of a “stronger, better deal.”  

Just as Trump sought to increase U.S. leverage over Iran through sanctions, so the Iranian hardliners seek to do the same through an expansion of the nuclear program. They would prefer that sanctions be lifted, but they also believe that turning to Russia and China would provide them with economic relief and security arrangements. Some “turned to East” out of an ideological anti-Westernism, others as a perceived means of insurance against the West’s broken promises. What matters here is not how realistic or sensible that turn is, or what consequences it will have for the Iranian people, but that this is how the now-dominant faction in Iran assesses the country’s options. 

All of this was not only predictable, but also predicted. The current impasse exposed the folly of those who argued against “rushing” to restore the JCPOA while the Rouhani administration was still in charge. Instead of entertaining illusions of a “better” deal, the E3 should have lobbied the Biden administration to rejoin the JCPOA from day one. Valuable time was lost. As a result, the E3 faces an unpalatable choice: accept Iran’s nuclear advances, some of which may be irreversible, particularly in R&D field, or revert to a policy of sanctions, perhaps by referring the matter to the U.N. Security Council.

The latter route, however, is unlikely to succeed as history suggests that Iran’s response to escalating pressure is an escalation of its own – both on the nuclear and regional fronts. The hopes that the severity of the sanctions would ignite an internal uprising are also groundless. Although upheavals due to poor economic conditions are likely, the regime has both enough resilience and determination to crush them, as it did in ruthless fashion in 2018 and 2019.

This bleak scenario may yet be avoided if Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei throws his weight behind the resurrection of the JCPOA in coming weeks or months. And if the deal ends up dying for good, Washington and Tehran, in that order — but not London, Paris and Berlin — will bear primary responsibility. Yet it’s critical to understand the E3’s miscalculations and mistakes. At stake are not only Europe’s relations with Iran  – sufficiently important in themselves – but its ability to remain a globally influential strategic player.  

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

May 15, 2017 — French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a reception in Berlin.
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