EU facing impossible task to uphold Iran nuclear deal without US

Given the scope of Iran’s demands, many in Europe fear being asked to choose between transatlantic and EU-Iran relations.
Saturday 02/06/2018
Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif leaves the EU council headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, on May. (Reuters)
Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif leaves the EU council headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, on May. (Reuters)

LONDON - Following US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement, the European Union has sought to keep the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) afloat but few believe the efforts will succeed.

Iranian and EU officials met in Vienna to discuss how to proceed. Speaking after Trump’s decision, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Tehran would remain in the deal so long as the European Union abided by three strict conditions.

First was that the European Union protect Iranian oil sales from US sanctions and continue to buy Iranian oil. Second, European banks would safeguard trade with Iran and ensure that Iran remains in the vital Swift international payment system. Third, that France, Germany and the United Kingdom agree not to seek a deal on Iran’s ballistic missile programme or its regional activities, including Iran-backed militias in Yemen, Iraq and Syria.

Given the scope of Tehran’s demands, many in Europe fear being asked to choose between transatlantic and EU-Iran relations, particularly with a volatile US leader who has demonstrated a willingness to upset longstanding alliances. Trump imposed tariffs on steel and aluminium on three of the United States’ largest trading partners — Canada, Mexico and the European Union — raising fears of a global trade war.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius, speaking to the EUobserver website, came down firmly on the side of EU-US relations over the Iran nuclear deal following an EU meeting on the issue.

“When you look at the scope of economic relations between the EU and the US and the EU and Iran there’s nothing to compare, in other words, we must rule out a possible EU-US trade war on Iranian sanctions,” he said.

“Let’s do our best in order to protect them [EU investors in Iran], to protect European economic interests in the [Iranian] banking system and transportation system… but let’s take into account what’s more important. We shouldn’t do this at the expense of euro-Atlantic relations.”

Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz also highlighted the importance of prioritising translation relations. “Other [EU states’] remarks showed that countries that owed their security to the United States also spoke out in this way,” he said

“Many countries are against a confrontation with the US,” he added.

Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Poland and Romania are among EU countries — mainly in Eastern Europe —  that want to see as little friction as possible with the United States. France, Germany and the United Kingdom — JCPOA signatories — are pushing for a harder line.

Washington has not officially confirmed that it will seek to sanction European companies that continue dealing with Iran.

“It’s possible, it depends on the conduct of other governments,” US national security adviser John Bolton said May 13 in a CNN interview. “I think the Europeans will see that it’s in their interests to come along with us.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also did not rule out sanctions. “The sanctions regime that is in place now is very clear on what the requirements are,” he told Fox News.

The European Union moved to ban European companies from complying with the US sanctions by activating a so-called blocking statute via the European Commission, although it was unclear whether the protectionist efforts would work. While the commission could protect small and medium-sized EU businesses active in Iran, it would have little effect on prospective investment by large multinationals such as Airbus and Total.

Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh gave Total, the French energy giant, until the end of July to win a sanctions waiver from the United States, with many viewing this as a test case on the future of the JCPOA following the US withdrawal.

Several European companies, including Danish shipping operator Maersk Tankers as well as German insurer Allianz, have decided to wind down operations in Iran.