Can the EU Save the JCPOA Under Testing Conditions?


Europe is in a quandary. Its attempt to save the Iran nuclear deal confronts its quest for a foreign policy independent of the United States. Officially called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), it is destined to the dustbin of history if Britain, France and Germany, the three signatories from Europe, fail to impress upon Iran and the United States. Since Washington reneged on its commitment to the treaty, the European states have felt obliged to save Iran from punitive sanctions imposed by President Donald Trump.
The trio’s initiative of launching a special payment system for trade to circumvent US sanctions – the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX) – failed to encourage European companies to engage in business with Iran. On May 8, Iran threatened to resume nuclear enrichment beyond the JCPOA limit if measures to ease restrictions on it are not implemented in 60 days. The Iranian government seems ready to reactivate the IR-2 and IR-2M type centrifuges in a departure from its treaty obligations.
With the signing of the nuclear deal, not only were Iran’s frozen assets released, including $60 billion in the United States, but also sanctions  against its companies and individuals involved in a wide range of businesses and industries were lifted. The White House not only reversed the sanctions waivers of the Obama presidency but also imposed newer ones, which Iran terms as ‘economic terrorism.’
With diminishing prospects of a thaw between the United States and Iran, France sent President Emmanuel Macron’s top diplomatic adviser Emmanuel Bonne for two-day meetings to appease Iran. He traveled with a freeze-to-freeze proposal whereby the country would not resume further uranium enrichment and America would not impose more sanctions.
Ali Shamkhani, Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), reportedly told Bonne that Iran’s action of enriching uranium beyond the JCPOA limit is within the terms of the nuclear deal as Tehran was entitled to downgrade its commitments if the other parties failed to meet their own. Iran is not currently allowed to enrich uranium beyond 3.67 percent.
The European countries have so far placed their hopes on the fact that Iran’s violations are calibrated instead of being brash, while regardless of his sanctions spree, Donald Trump favors talks and more recently spoke of headway in resolving the issues with Tehran. Washington’s decision not to avenge the downing of its drone has sent an encouraging message to honest brokers like France, Japan and Oman. However, Britain’s recent seizure of an Iranian supertanker bound for Syria off the coast of Gibraltar has angered Iran, which denies the charges.  There have been reports of the IRGC navy making a failed bid to seize a British tanker in the Gulf. Resultantly, the United Kingdom is sending naval assets to the Gulf to ensure the safety of its commercial ships.
Irrespective of rising tensions in the Gulf after back-to-back incidents, the French have been persistently reaching out to Iran to save the JCPOA. While Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron has spoken to Donald Trump four times in a month and twice to Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, Bonne has just paid his second visit to Tehran in a month. Paris has been relentlessly attempting to save the JCPOA since Washington decided to withdraw, and interestingly enough, Iran and the United States have valued French efforts so far.
Optimism notwithstanding, France’s freeze-to-freeze proposal lacks measures to reduce heightened insecurity in the Gulf waters. Even if the United States stops imposing further sanctions and Iran abides by its JCPOA commitments, an act of belligerence by either side can ignite limited or protracted conflict. What benefit will Tehran see in abiding by the nuclear deal? And, why would the United States not inflict non-violent punitive actions when its naval vessels or surveillance aircraft come under attack? The Macron proposal can only serve as a confidence building measure to start a bitter and cumbersome negotiation process as long as unilateral aggressive acts end. Britain, another signatory to the JCPOA, is not on the same page with France as it was prior to its seizure of an Iranian tanker in Gibraltar. China and Russia will oppose Iran’s bid to violate the nuclear deal. Yet, both will exploit the scenario for their own geostrategic advantage. Russia may find a pretext for its navy to enter the Strait of Hormuz while China, already the single largest trade partner with the Gulf states, will rely on the pretext of ensuring maritime security to deploy its naval ships. France, Germany and China can impress upon Iran against violating the JCPOA in order to escape multilateral punitive measures.
If French efforts result in convincing Iran to abide by the JCPOA enrichment ceiling of 3.67 percent, Europe will have something to celebrate. And, if (and it’s a very large if) Iran and the United States agree to hold direct talks in the presence of France and the EU representative, the fantasy of an independent European foreign policy will become a reality. In the wake of the turbulent geopolitical forecast, the EU foreign policy establishment can make its mark at least by helping to preserve the JCPOA-mandated limit on Iran’s enrichment. For now, the danger of Tehran’s quest for fissile material is coupled with extremely volatile security conditions in the Gulf.

Editorial Team