The United States reiterated its position this week to continue to put pressure on Iran until “it comes to the negotiating table” to agree to a deal to replace the one signed with the world powers in 2015 on its nuclear programme.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) deal signed between Iran and six countries, the US, UK, France, Germany, China and Russia, was meant to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons in exchange for reinserting the country into the international community by easing sanctions imposed on Tehran.
Last year, US President Donald Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal and later re-imposed toughened sanctions on Iran. Citing Iran’s development of missile capabilities threatening regional security, destabilising the Arab Gulf countries, and support for terrorism, the US has tightened sanctions on Iran by ending exemptions from penalties for countries importing Iranian oil and designating more entities and persons, including Iranian leader Ayatollah Khamenei, as subject to sanctions.
Tehran has warned that it will breach the JCPOA deal unless the other parties help it to get round the US sanctions. The European powers, China and Russia are keen on keeping the deal, considering that it helps to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. Iran insists its nuclear programme is only for peaceful purposes.
On Friday, Iranian and European Union representatives met in Vienna to discuss a proposed mechanism called Instex to ease the burden on Iran by persuading it to comply with the JCPOA.
However, two days after the meeting, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said his country had allowed its stockpile of low-enriched uranium to exceed 300 kg.
This was first mooted by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani after the US tightening of the sanctions in May. It was later followed by other threats to increase uranium enrichment levels and halt the redesign of a heavy-water nuclear reactor at Arak if the other signatories to the deal didn’t “fulfill their commitments towards Iran’s interests.”
An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman said enrichment beyond 3.67 per cent would start in 10 days unless the European powers took “practical and tangible steps” to implement their new Instex mechanism for facilitating trade and shielded the Iranian economy from the effects of the US sanctions.
The new mechanism discussed in Vienna, started on Saturday, means bartering goods with Iran without financial transactions falling within the scope of the US sanctions.
The UK, France and Germany have been trying to persuade Iran to stick to the deal by softening the US sanctions, but Iran is unlikely to agree to a deal that only eases trade in humanitarian goods not subject to US sanctions, such as food and medicine.
It wants Europe to use the mechanism to establish larger credit lines to finance Iranian oil exports to Europe.
The reaction of the Europeans has been cautious. While acknowledging the Iranian breach of the deal as “serious,” they did not condemn it as the US and Israel wanted. French President Emmanuel Macron is also mulling over the idea of visiting Tehran in an attempt to break the stalemate.
The other signatories to the JCPOA had only muted reactions. Nothing was heard from China, while Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov regretted the Iranian step of exceeding the stockpiling limit, but added that the move “should not be dramatised.”
China is still importing Iranian oil despite the US ending the exemption in May, but other countries like India and Japan have lowered their Iranian oil imports almost to nil. Iran’s oil exports have now reached their lowest level at 400,000 barrels per day.
While the wrangling continues between Iran and the EU, the White House has said it will continue to apply “maximum pressure” on Iran “until its leaders alter their course of action,” adding that Iran should be held to a standard barring all uranium enrichment.
Though the Iran crisis seems to be fading a little in the Arab Gulf, concerns are still high and for some it is a question of who will blink first, Iran or the US. A spark might ignite a wider war.
For UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash, writing in a recent tweet, “tensions in the Gulf can only be addressed politically.
” Stressing the need for any new deal with Iran to be comprehensive, he added that “a crisis long in the making requires collective attention, primarily to de-escalate and to find political solutions through dialogue and negotiations. Regional voices are important to achieve sustainable solutions.”
Some analysts in the Gulf argue that it only needs one more JCPOA signatory to follow the US line and withdraw from the deal for it to become a dead letter.
All eyes now are on the UK, where a new prime minister will be chosen this month to replace outgoing prime minister Theresa May. The frontrunner, Boris Johnson, is known to be more aligned with the US than his rival Jeremy Hunt.
The UK is already blaming Iran for the tensions in the region, and it is not as enthusiastic as France and Germany to keep the current deal.
In a statement from the British foreign office, it reaffirmed its position on developments in the Gulf.
“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States express their concern over escalating tensions in the region and the dangers posed by Iranian destabilising activity to peace and security both in Yemen and the broader region,” the statement said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Towards a new Iran deal?