E3 Set for a Tightrope Walk to Keep the JCPOA Intact



Germany, France, and the UK – known as the E3 – are making a desperate attempt  to save the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) as the fifth anniversary of its signing approaches in October. The June 19 joint statement cleared up the European position with regard to the JCPOA. The language is direct compared to conventional diplomatic talk.

The joint statement  raises quite a few points. First,  the Europeans maintain  their disagreement over and regret at the US decision to withdraw from the JCPOA  and the reimposition of unilateral  sanctions in May 2018. Second, the Europeans reminded the world and Iran of their  efforts to  protect Tehran from Washington’s economic sanctions, via  the  creation and operationalization of INSTEX. Third, the joint statement noted that Iran has been violating its  nuclear deal commitments, thus the Europeans  have no choice but to activate the  dispute resolution mechanism (DRM). The first step was  initiated on January 14. After waiting for Iran’s response, the E3 said, “We will seek a ministerial meeting to urge Iran to cooperate and to take stock of where we stand in the DRM process.”

The E3 called upon Iran “to pursue substantial discussions and actions in coordination” with the nuclear deal signatories. The Europeans do not consider the United States to be part of the JCPOA after its withdrawal. Finally, the Europeans  expressed “grave concern”  with regard to Iran obstructing International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors from visiting suspected sites. 

The IAEA rebuked Iran and called on Tehran to allow inspectors to visit  the suspected sites. It is believed that at one of these sites under question, between 2002 and 2003 there was a possible presence of undeclared  natural uranium in the form of a metal disc, while at the other sites it is suspected that the processing and conversion of uranium ore had been conducted. On the E3 initiative, the IAEA passed a resolution demanding Iran’s compliance with its inspection request. At the IAEA’s board of governors meeting, 25 members out of 35 voted in favor of the resolution.

While the E3 noted that the UN lifting its arms embargo on Iran in October 2020 will have possible ramifications for regional security and stability, it noted, “the EU embargoes on conventional arms exports and missile technology will remain in force until 2023.”

The European powers have not only expressed their desire to coordinate closely  with Russia and China along with other JCPOA parties  but they have also hinted at possibly coordinating with other key stakeholders, such as  the Gulf Arab states.

The E3 categorically stated  their opposition to any unilateral attempt to trigger   the snapback provision  at the UNSC. “We would not support such a decision which would be incompatible with our current efforts to preserve the JCPOA.” However,  the Europeans did voice  “shared concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, its ballistic missile program and its destabilizing regional activities in the long term.”

Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif responded with a swift  reply, “E3 must stop public face-saving & muster the courage to state publicly what they admit privately: their failure to fulfill even own JCPOA duties due to total impotence in resisting US bullying Behind the facade, E3 are accessories to Trump & Netanyahu – & in no position to counsel Iran.”

Tehran’s bitterness towards the E3 stems from its belief that the Europeans have not fulfilled their promises under the JCPOA.  Although French President Emmanuel Macron held talks with Zarif on the sidelines of the G-7 summit, there was no significant outcome.

Reacting to the IAEA resolution,  Zarif stated: “BoG should not allow JCPOA enemies to jeopardize Iran’s supreme interests. E3 should not be an accessory, after failing its own JCPOA duties. We’ve nothing to hide. More inspections in Iran over the last 5 years than in IAEA history an agreeable solution is possible, but Res will ruin it.”

 Although the Europeans have distanced   themselves from the United States,  this is still  not satisfactory for Iran. This  is evident from when Zarif said  that the “E3 should not be an accessory.” This reflects Iran’s belief that the E3  will eventually fall in line with the United States.

In the coming weeks and months, Europe’s actions can be described as walking a tightrope.  Apart from issuing some sanction waivers, the White House has not shown much interest in keeping the JCPOA intact. The Europeans,  apart from  Britain’s Boris Johnson to some extent, have neither had a cordial relationship with President Trump   nor found Washington’s  fickle policies  conducive to  their respective national interests. With China and Russia, the E3 seeks to maintain a friendly working relationship with Iran owing to regional stability as well as trade interests. The Europeans’  key interest remains in Iran’s absolute compliance with IAEA safeguards and the NPT’s Additional Protocol.

One window of opportunity for the Europeans is to seek to extend  the UN arms embargo on Iran for one year to  save the JCPOA from collapsing. If the embargo is not extended, the United States would invoke the snapback provision leading to Iran exiting the JCPOA and resuming  its covert nuclear program. Iran may not agree to this short-term extension while facing  multifaceted US sanctions unless  Washington shows some flexibility. This is unlikely in an election year. To save the JCPOA, China and Russia may accept an arms embargo extension on Iran  but in accordance with  their respective terms.

Since the Europeans activated the DRM in January,  the other option for them is to pursue negotiations with Iran on outstanding issues within the DRM timeframe.  To complete the DRM steps a period of three months is needed. Failure of the DRM  means the invocation of the snapback provision  and the reimposition of  pre-2015 sanctions on Iran.  However, the DRM steps  will remain  on hold for now as the Europeans are  waiting for a constructive response from Iran to  start negotiations.

Iran will be a tough negotiator and the talks can address various outstanding issues such as Tehran’s violations of the JCPOA, its destabilizing regional behavior and development of sophisticated long-range missiles. In addition, they can focus on Iran obstructing IAEA inspectors from accessing suspected sites.

Editorial Team