Gap between Europe, US regarding Iran highlighted by IAEA meeting

The recent IAEA meeting broke up in rancour without agreement or resolution. Why the United States requested the emergency session was left unclear.
Saturday 13/07/2019
Playing for time. US Ambassador Jackie Wolcott waits for IAEA Board of Governors meeting in Vienna, July 10. (AP)
Playing for time. US Ambassador Jackie Wolcott waits for IAEA Board of Governors meeting in Vienna, July 10. (AP)

In 2006, the 35-member governing board of the International Atomic Energy Agency referred Iran’s nuclear programme to the UN Security Council, which agreed to implement sanctions that were lifted only after Tehran’s 2015 agreement to limit its nuclear activities.

The recent IAEA meeting broke up in rancour without agreement or resolution. Why the United States requested the emergency session was left unclear.

While Washington attacked Tehran for stepping beyond limits set by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on uranium enrichment, Russian delegate Mikhail Ulyanov argued the United States was “refusing to fulfil its own obligations under the nuclear deal… [and therefore] lost any right to demand this from others.”

Europe is working to maintain the JCPOA or at least to keep Iran as close as possible to its terms. Tehran has breached them since May by exceeding a limit of 300 kilograms of enriched uranium and more recently by enriching beyond 3.67%.

On the day the IAEA board met, French President Emmanuel Macron’s senior adviser, Emmanuel Bonne, was in Tehran seeking an understanding through which Iran would return to JCPOA limits in exchange for the United States moderating sanctions. The Europeans’ gambit was that US President Donald Trump’s desire to prevent war may coax him along such a course.

“Europe is moderating its criticism of the US, at least in public, to avoid making even harder the task of persuading the US to offer something in return for Iran staying within, or near to, the JCPOA limits,” said a former European diplomat, “but if the US won’t play with ideas of ‘paying a price’ for Iran to go back to the limits, then this is a forlorn hope.”

Omens are certainly mixed. As the IAEA board met, Trump claimed on Twitter that Iran — contrary to IAEA findings — was secretly enriching uranium and threatened “substantially” increased sanctions.

The IAEA is not a party to the JCPOA, which was signed by Iran, the United States, Russia, China and the EU3 (Germany, France and the United Kingdom) and endorsed by the Security Council. The agency does monitor Iran’s nuclear programme under Tehran’s safeguards agreement as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That enables it to monitor Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA.

The EU3 statement to the IAEA board stressed the importance of Tehran continuing to allow “full and timely access” to agency inspections, called on Iran to return to JCPOA limits and requested an urgent meeting of JCPOA signatories.

In Tehran, Ali Shamkhani, Iran’s top security official, told Bonne that Tehran’s decision to increase enrichment was “unchangeable” and criticised Europe’s failure to shield Iran from US sanctions. INSTEX, the European special purpose vehicle for Iranian trade, is yet to yield results, even on humanitarian goods.

Caught in the middle, the Europeans are not just alarmed at Iran’s likely steps to expand the nuclear programme or possible moves to restrict the access of IAEA inspectors. They are also puzzled by the Trump administration.

“I don’t think they have a clear objective,” said the former diplomat commenting on US positions. “They’re just winging it, expecting Iran to crumble eventually and then negotiate on as many of the 12 points as possible.”

The 12 demands are those laid down by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last year, including that Tehran end uranium enrichment, break links with regional allies and abandon its missile programme. With Iran showing no inclination to negotiate on such terms, Trump’s wariness over military entanglement leaves a default position of tightening existing sanctions and introducing new ones.

“His [Trump’s] strategy is to shake things up with Iran and also say he doesn’t want to go to war,” said US Representative Peter King, a Trump ally. “We’ll see if it works. I don’t think we’ll end up going to war… [Trump] is verbally aggressive and loves sanctions… It could cause them to be more conciliatory. It might not work, but I think people shouldn’t prejudge it. We’ll see in a year.”

For Iran, a year could be a long time. Sanctions have plunged the country’s economy into recession. Oil exports have collapsed from 2.6 million barrels per day (bpd) in 2018 to estimates of 380,000-500,000 bpd. The cost of medicine, food and other staples has rocketed. Mehdi Zakerian, visiting law professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a human rights advocate who faced detention at home in Iran, called US sanctions “flagrant economic war against the Iranian people.”

Iran’s leadership has opted for a resistance strategy of evading sanctions, gradually resuming the nuclear programme and waiting for Trump to lose the 2020 election. But patience varies.

“There are some — a small group within the hard-liner wing — who would be more than happy if the US attacked some sites in Iran, enabling them to blame the US for economic problems and gather people around the flag,” said an Iranian professor. “A few missiles could produce martyrs to show the world.”