Tehran faces deep crisis with Europe over change of stance on nuclear deal

As the JCPOA nears its seeming end, the problematic quest to find a long-term resolution of Iran’s nuclear activities will reopen.
Sunday 26/01/2020
High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission Josep Borrell appears at a news conference after a EU foreign ministers emergency meeting to discuss ways to try to save the Iran nuclear deal, in Brussels, January 10. (Reuters)
Policy shift. High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission Josep Borrell appears at a news conference, January 10. (Reuters)

DUBAI - The European Union triggered a dispute mechanism under Article 37 of the Iran nuclear accord after the United Kingdom, France and Germany reached consensus on the matter.

European officials say they continue to support the increasingly troubled Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the nuclear deal is formally called, but there is a perception that Washington may have forced the hand of its European partners.

Reacting to the move, Iran accused European governments of bowing to “bullying” from the United States, selling their “integrity” and losing any claim to the moral high ground as a result.

German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer admitted that Washington threatened to impose a 25% tariff on imports of European cars to the United States if European governments continued to back the nuclear accord. The American car market is estimated to be worth nearly $30 billion to Germany.

Richard Goldberg, a former adviser at the White House, suggested that US President Donald Trump could make an anticipated trade deal with the United Kingdom in the post-Brexit period contingent on British support for its pressure campaign against Iran.

Trump has spent two years effectively undoing the JCPOA, an agreement he called the “worst deal ever” despite containing the most stringent international nuclear safeguards ever agreed. The Trump administration aimed to force renegotiation of the JCPOA to include Iran’s wider activities in the Middle East.

However, the rising stakes between the United States and Iran have scuppered the possibility of direct talks between the rivals and the possibility that the JCPOA could survive, let alone provide a basis to negotiate a broader deal, is increasingly problematic.

The dramatic US operation to assassinate Iran’s most powerful military official, Major-General Qassem Soleimani, with a drone strike January 3 stoked fears of a new conflict in the Middle East.

London, Paris and Berlin said they have been left with no choice but to trigger the dispute mechanism, which allows a party to penalise significant non-compliance. The matter is to be assessed by a joint commission of the JCPOA’s signatories, including Russia and China, but eventually moves to the UN Security Council, which could reimpose international sanctions.

Moscow says it sees no grounds for the European Union to trigger the dispute mechanism. Iran called the move a “strategic mistake” because, it said, Europe has not kept its side of the bargain under the terms of the agreement.

Following unilateral sanctions imposed by the United States after its withdrawal from the JCPOA, for example, Europe stopped buying Iranian oil and few European companies have been willing to risk doing business there under prevailing circumstances.

The European effort to develop an alternate payment mechanism that would enable trade with Iran, called INSTEX, has failed to deliver results significant enough to keep Tehran interested.

European diplomats are said to be keen to avoid escalating the dispute to the Security Council and plan to retain the issue at the JCPOA council level. Distancing itself from the United States’ “maximum pressure” campaign, the European Union said it did not accept Iran’s case for violating its commitments under the accord and could not allow its move to go unanswered.

Since last May, Iran has initiated a step-by-step suspension of its commitments under JCPOA in protest at what Tehran says is Europe’s inability to compensate it for the costs of the US withdrawal from the accord and subsequent economic sanctions imposed against it.

Tehran recently announced the “fifth and final” phase of suspending commitments under the JCPOA after removing limits on centrifuge installation and uranium enrichment at its facilities.

Iran continues to uphold commitments under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to which it is a signatory, including cooperation with and monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Tehran said it would return to full compliance of the JCPOA if Washington lifts all sanctions or if Europe can compensate its losses against them.

Europe fears Iran’s resumption of the nuclear research programme would lead it to technological breakthroughs that could allow it to build a weapon much faster — shortening what is known as the “breakout” time.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani recently declared that Iran’s nuclear programme is more advanced than ever and that its daily enrichment capacity is greater than it was before Tehran signed the JCPOA.

A new crisis over Iran’s nuclear programme is emerging. Iran may be ready to abandon the JCPOA but, more worryingly, Iranian parliament Speaker Ali Larijani suggested that Tehran may review its cooperation with IAEA as a consequence of the European Union’s decision to trigger the dispute mechanism. Ultimately, said Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Tehran could consider withdrawing from the NPT.

As the JCPOA nears its seeming end, the problematic quest to find a long-term resolution of Iran’s nuclear activities will reopen. The European Union will need to reconcile the wide gulf between the United States, which wants the JCPOA replaced with a broader deal, and Iran, which says the end of the JCPOA could spell the end of its NPT membership.

There is little that would obstruct American brute force on the matter but this year’s US presidential election is an important milestone that all stakeholders will be planning around.