Time for an elegy for the Iranian nuclear deal?

The Iran nuclear deal faces the prospect of falling apart but Iran still hesitates to help the EU’s efforts to preserve the deal.
Sunday 11/03/2018
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (R) meets with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian in Tehran, on March 5. (AFP)
Fruitless exercise. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (R) meets with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian in Tehran, on March 5. (AFP)

With Donald Trump in the White House, the Iran nuclear deal faces the prospect of falling apart but Iran still hesitates to help the European Union’s efforts to preserve the deal. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian’s largely apparently unsuccessful visit March 4 to Tehran is the latest of those efforts. In the end, Tehran may come to bitterly regret its hesitation.

Trump announced in January he had “not yet withdrawn the United States from the Iran nuclear deal.” He said that would happen, however, unless “the deal’s disastrous flaws” are fixed, which means it should allow for the following: “Immediate inspections at all sites requested by international inspectors” and removal of the “sunset” provisions on limits to Iran’s nuclear programme and new restrictions on Iran’s long-range missile programme.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif responded on Twitter that the deal was not negotiable and that the US president’s stance “amounts to desperate attempts to undermine a solid multilateral agreement.”

More recently, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi told the independent London policy institute Chatham House: “[W]e cannot remain in a deal that has no benefit to us.”

The comments from both Washington and Tehran must be taken with a grain of salt. After all, candidate Trump often promised to declare the Iran nuclear deal null and void on his first day in office but he has twice certified that very deal and could do so again and again instead of terminating the agreement.

The threat held out by Iranian President Hassan Rohani, Zarif and Araqchi of leaving the deal is just as unlikely. Their political careers are based on the promise of a negotiated solution to the crisis over Iran’s nuclear programme.

Even so, the Europeans take the possibility the deal might unravel very seriously. EU countries are doing their utmost to come up with solutions that would keep the Trump administration committed to the deal without causing an uproar in Iran.

Tehran, however, does not seem particularly helpful. Its former ambassador to the United Nations, Ali Khorram, on February 26 gave an interesting interview to Fararu, a Farsi news website, which is also available in English, Spanish and Arabic. He complained: “We are indifferent to European efforts and mostly treat them badly.”

“The British foreign minister visits Iran and, not only leaves empty-handed but is hurled with insults” in a reference to Boris Johnson’s unsuccessful visit to Iran in December, aimed at freeing a British-Iranian dual national from imprisonment in Iran.

“What can we expect of the Europeans under such circumstances,” Khorram asked, going on to conclude: “Trump is trying to persuade the Europeans to follow his path… and we have not taken a single positive step forward… We… chased the Europeans into Trump’s arms.”

Fararu also had international affairs expert Ali Bigdeli commenting on German and French attempts to keep the Iran nuclear deal alive. “The German foreign minister [Sigmar Gabriel] raised the human rights issue. Next, he raised the issue of Iranian forces [in Syria, Iraq and the like] returning to Iran and third [jointly raised by the French], is the issue of Iran’s missile tests.”

Bigdeli, perhaps over-optimistically, assessed human rights and missile tests as “less problematic” issues. He deemed the return of Iranian forces from Syria, Iraq and elsewhere as more problematic for Tehran.

Then there is the view taken by publications at the other end of the political spectrum. The February 26 edition of Sobh-e Sadeq, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ weekly, condemned the “shameless behaviour of the European troika.” It said its behaviour makes “the European game indistinguishable from the American.”

Sobh-e Sadeq stressed the “strategic redlines of Iran.” These include the non-negotiable nature of “Iran’s missile capability” and “its regional defence capabilities.” It would also not be willing to accept inspections of its military sites. Sobh-e Sadeq urged the government to use Russia and China to counter the pressure from Washington and the European Union.

Tehran may regret turning its back on the European Union’s efforts and its dependence on Moscow and Beijing, which may abandon it in pursuit of their own interests.