The Iran nuclear deal is “not in good health, but still alive” declared EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini after an EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels concluded that breaches of the 2015 nuclear deal by Iran were so far not serious enough to trigger the pact’s dispute mechanism, opting for more diplomacy to ease the crisis.
The EU is desperately trying to prevent the deal unravelling, seeing it as the best way to stop Tehran obtaining nuclear weapons.
Speaking to reporters at the end of a meeting of EU foreign ministers, Mogherini said the steps taken by Iran so far — including enriching uranium above the 3.67 per cent ceiling set by the 2015 nuclear deal — were reversible.
So, for now, none of the remaining parties have triggered the formal dispute mechanism, meaning that they do not regard Iran’s breaches as “significant non-compliance” under the terms of the deal, said Mogherini.
But according to David Wearing, professor of politics and international relations at Royal Holloway University in London, “Europe needs to do more” to protect the deal.
Admitting the difficulty of mitigating the effects of Americans sanctions, due to the overwhelming influence of the US on the international financial system, Wearing suggests there are things the Europeans can do, such as being tough with the Americans and telling them they are the party that should take responsibility for current tensions.
He referred to the statement issued by France, Germany and the UK ahead of the meeting in Brussels urging Iran to come back into compliance.
“The risks are such that it is necessary for all stakeholders to pause and consider the possible consequences of their actions,” the statement said. “We believe that the time has come to act responsibly and to look for ways to stop the escalation of tension and resume dialogue.
“We are concerned by the risk that the nuclear deal further unravels under the strain of sanctions imposed by the United States and following Iran’s decision to no longer implement several of the central provisions of the agreement,” said the joint statement.
The statement did criticise the United States for exiting the nuclear deal and re-imposition of sanctions on Tehran, but the language of the statement was more severe and harsh on Tehran.
Tensions in the Gulf have soared since last year, when the US pulled out of the 2015 deal and re-imposed sanctions on Iran, hammering its economy and prompting Tehran to break limits on uranium enrichment and stockpiling.
The UK’s Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, issued his starkest warning yet. He said tensions in the Middle East could pose an existential threat unless the Iran deal is maintained.
Hunt told his European counterparts: “The Middle East is already one of the most unstable regions in the world, but if the different parties were armed with nuclear weapons, it would represent an existential threat to mankind. I will do everything in my power to prevent that from happening.”
French President Emmanuel Macron, on a visit to Belgrade, said he would speak with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Russian President Vladimir Putin this week in a bid to salvage the accord.
But Iran piled fresh pressure on Europe, demanding concrete measures to give it relief from US sanctions and threatening to return its nuclear programme to where it was before the curbs imposed by the 2015 deal.
Mr Hunt — who held phone talks with his US and Iranian counterparts at the weekend — insisted “the deal isn’t dead yet.”
“Iran is still a good year away from developing a nuclear weapon. We think there is still some closing but small window to keep the deal alive,” Hunt told reporters.
Iran has repeatedly warned it could leave the deal unless the remaining parties bypass US sanctions.
“If the Europeans and the Americans don’t want to carry out their duties... we will decrease our commitments and... reverse the conditions to four years ago,” Iranian Atomic Energy Agency Spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi said, quoted by the IRNA state news agency.
Europe’s dilemma is that it needs to meet its obligations according to the deal, regardless of Trump’s position, to keep the deal alive.
So far, the Europeans failed to do so, at least from the Iranian perspective, as the US is using its power to cut Iran out of the international financial system.
There is not much the EU can do immediately. But Europe hopes to use a special trading mechanism called INSTEX to enable businesses to deal with Iran without using the US dollar or financial system, thereby helping the Iranian economy while avoiding Washington’s sanctions.
But the mechanism is complicated; no transactions have been finalised yet and it can for now only be used for humanitarian goods — food and pharmaceuticals, for example — though Mogherini said shareholding countries were discussing extending it to Iran’s crucial oil sector.
The sweeping nature of US measures has scared many major European businesses out of Iran despite Brussels’ insistence that American sanctions do not apply in Europe.
“Iran has taken bad decisions in response to the bad decision of the United States to pull out of the deal and re-impose sanctions, whose extraterritoriality strikes at the economic advantages the country got from the deal,” French Foreign Minister Jean Yves Le Drian said in Brussels.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry warned in a statement that its compliance with the deal was “rooted in the principle of reciprocity” and demanded Europe come up with “practical, effective and responsible decisions”.
EU ministers insisted Iran must return to respecting its obligations under the deal in full, rejecting a suggestion by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani that both sides could reduce their commitments.
WHAT ABOUT THE UK AFTER BREXIT?
For the Europeans’ efforts to succeed, they need unity. However, the EU’s unity on Iran is not certain after Brexit and with changes imminent in 10 Downing Street.
The frontrunner to replace Theresa May as prime minster, Mr Boris Johnson, will not be keen to challenge Washington’s policies openly if and when he becomes prime minister, and this is a source of concern for the other European allies, led by Berlin and Paris, according to British diplomats.
The Trump administration also will be keen after May’s departure to coax her successor with Washington’s views on Iran, taking advantage of Britain’s need for its closest ally, America, after leaving the European Union.
There are signs that Britain is playing an active role in implementing US sanctions against Tehran, although London remains committed to the nuclear deal. The Iranians accused Britain of holding the Iranian oil tanker “Grace I” off the coast of Gibraltar “in implementation” of US demands as part of the tightening of sanctions against Iran, not because the shipment was destined for Syria. London’s seizure of the oil tanker strained relations between Tehran and London and Britain was forced to send the British Royal Navy’s HMS Duncan to the Gulf to protect British ships.
The escalation between Britain and Iran will only increase the difficulty London faces to articulate Iran policy after Brexit. And it comes while the police are still investigating the leaks of secret cables former British ambassador to Washington Sir Kim Darroch sent to London last year.
In the memos, the British ambassador gave blunt assessments of the Trump administration, including one in which the envoy to Washington said President Donald Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal to spite predecessor Barack Obama.
In a secret cable which was sent May 2018, the UK ambassador called Trump’s decision to abandon the international accord “an act of diplomatic vandalism, seemingly for ideological and personality reasons” because the pact “was Obama’s deal”.
Darroch wrote the memo after then-foreign secretary Boris Johnson visited Washington in a failed attempt to persuade the United States not to abandon the 2015 nuclear agreement.
He said the White House had no strategy for what would come after its withdrawal and “no sort of plan for reaching out to partners and allies”.
Trump responded by calling Darroch “very stupid” and a “pompous fool” in a Twitter fusillade, and the White House cut off contact with the British envoy. Darroch announced his resignation last Wednesday, saying “the current situation is making it impossible for me to carry out my role as I would like.”
Some politicians in the UK blamed Johnson for refusing to publicly defend Darroch after Trump posted disparaging tweets about the ambassador for two days. Darroch has said Johnson’s silence contributed to his decision to quit.
The whole episode shows how British policy on Iran and other issues will be very tricky after Brexit and with a prime minister eager to please the US president.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Iran deal on life support