In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus finds himself in a situation where he must pass between Charybdis, a whirlpool, and Scylla, a monster.
It was not an enviable position, and it is similar to where the European countries find themselves at a moment when rising tensions between Iran and the United States have left the continent between a rock and a hard place in trying to avert further conflict in the Middle East.
The region seems to be on the brink of another conflict that could have enormously damaging consequences. And the European Union is in a race against time to keep the Iran nuclear agreement with the West alive after Iran’s announcement that it will breach the limit on its stockpile of enriched uranium on 27 June set under the 2015 deal unless there is progress from the other side.
Behrouz Kamalvandi, a spokesman for the Iran Atomic Energy Organisation, told a news conference at the country’s Arak nuclear facility that the “countdown to pass the 300 kg reserve of enriched uranium has started… and in 10 days we will pass this limit.”
Frustrated by Europe’s inability to mitigate the US sanctions against the country, Iran has resorted to one of the few cards it has left, which is to threaten to resume part of its nuclear activities.
However, Tehran has also declared that there is “still time” for the European countries to protect Iran’s economy from the reinstated US sanctions and head off the prospect of a breach in the deal.
The US, which pulled out of the deal last year, accused Iran of “nuclear extortion”. The Trump administration has imposed sanctions against Iran that bar US companies from trading with the country and take action against foreign firms or countries that deal with Iran.
The US stepped up the pressure on Iran in May by ending exemptions from secondary sanctions for countries buying Iranian oil.
The move was intended to deny Iran its principal source of revenue, hoping that Tehran would be forced to renegotiate the nuclear accord, curb its ballistic-missile programme, and end its “malign” activities in the Middle East.
The reinstatement of the sanctions, particularly those on the energy, shipping and financial sectors, has caused foreign investment to dry up and hit Iran’s oil exports. Iran’s GDP contracted by 3.9 per cent in 2018, according to estimates from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
This said in April that it expected the Iranian economy to shrink by six per cent in 2019, a projection that also preceded the expiration of US sanction waivers.
Iran has complained that the European countries have failed to abide by their commitments under the deal or mitigate the effects of the US sanctions. This has caused many in Iran to ask why Tehran should commit to the agreement and question its supposed economic advantages.
The potential collapse of the nuclear agreement comes at a time of high tensions in the Middle East, with the US accusing Iran of being behind suspected attacks that left two oil tankers ablaze in the Gulf of Oman last Thursday.
While Iran has denied any involvement, the US has announced that it will send an additional 1,000 troops to the Middle East.
Acting US Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan said the deployment was in response to what he described as “hostile behaviour” by Iranian forces.
In the face of the growing US pressure, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced that his country was scaling back its commitments under the nuclear deal, throwing the ball into the EU’s court to make a move to maintain it.
“We understand the Iranian frustration, but the European Union remains committed to the nuclear agreement and we believe that abandoning it will create serious tensions in the Middle East,” one European diplomat based in London told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“Europe’s advice to Iran is to hang on and continue the policy of strategic patience... there is a great European desire for the success of the nuclear agreement. We urge Iran not to follow the US steps and quit the deal because that will put Europe in a very difficult position,” he said.
The Europeans have set up a “special purpose vehicle” aimed to allow goods to be bartered between Iranian and foreign companies without direct financial transactions. But the mechanism, known as Instex, is not yet operational.
As a result, Iran’s policy of “strategic patience” may be coming to an end because of internal pressures from hardliners on Rouhani and his moderate team.
The EU is also walking a fine line in wanting to play a constructive role in pushing Iran to abide by the nuclear agreement despite the US sanctions while also wanting to circumvent them as much as possible to give Tehran a reason to keep the nuclear agreement alive.
The EU wants to play a positive role in easing tensions in the Middle East by pressuring Iran on several regional fronts and persuading Tehran to scale back its missile programme.
Britain has a particularly complicated position, since it does not want to appear to be supporting the European position at the expense of its American ally.
It hopes that good relations with the Trump administration will help it to agree a free-trade agreement after exiting the EU to offset losses caused by leaving the European bloc.
But London does not want to see military escalation in the Middle East, and nor does it want to dismantle the Iran nuclear deal, which it contributed to in two years of arduous negotiations.
It also does not want to anger its European allies, especially France and Germany, by siding with the Trump administration, especially as Europe remains committed to the nuclear deal and sees it as a model that could be used to halt nuclear proliferation around the world, for example in North Korea.
London does not want to increase tensions with Tehran for internal reasons either, as the foreign office is pressing the Iranian authorities to release Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian citizen imprisoned for nearly four years in Tehran.
“Of course, the case of Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe is our priority, but that does not mean that London cannot take a firm stand on Iran’s other policies that run counter to our interests,” a British official told the Weekly.
A spokesman for UK Prime Minister Theresa May said the government had been “clear about our concern at Iranian plans to reduce compliance” with the deal. “Should Iran cease meeting its nuclear commitments, we would then look at all the options available to us,” he added.
The EU said it would consider Iran to be complying with its obligations under the nuclear deal until scientific evidence emerges showing it has breached its commitments.
Hours after Iran said it could break the uranium stockpile limit set by the 2015 nuclear deal, EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini said the bloc would continue to do what it could to make sure the agreement holds.
Work was ongoing to put in place “a mechanism that can allow the Iranians to benefit from economic transactions that can legitimately take place,” she said, but did not say what would happen if Tehran veered away from the terms of the global deal.
“Iran has been compliant with its nuclear commitment as we had expected it to be,” she said, adding that the EU would await the next report on the issue from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEE) before taking any action.
The EU has been trying to make sure that Tehran abides by the terms of the agreement and hopes financial inducements will help. Germany, a key partner in the agreement, said it was up to Iran to stick to the nuclear deal if it wanted to avoid any further unspecified measures.
Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said that Germany, France, Britain, China and Russia were keeping to their obligations under the nuclear deal and that it was “incumbent upon Iran to remain committed to its responsibilities.”
Meanwhile, the EU nations were also still evaluating the apparent attacks on two tankers in the Gulf last week. “I consider now, as before, that the situation is extremely explosive,” Maas said. “Military confrontation in the Gulf would mean the whole region in flames, and that can’t be in anyone’s interest.”
For many purposes, the nuclear agreement is now considered by some to be “clinically dead” because it was not designed to operate in isolation from the commitment of all the parties.
Since the US withdrawal from the agreement and the re-imposition of sanctions, it has become clear that the European countries have not succeeded in mitigating the moves against Iran.
With no fruits for Iran from its compliance with the nuclear deal, Tehran’s observance of it has become simply a strategic decision.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 June, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Europe’s mission in the Middle East