US maneuvers the EU back into its column against nuclear Iran - analysis

Move will influence Tehran decision about broader war

EU flags flutter outside the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels. (photo credit: REUTERS/FRANCOIS LENOIR)
EU flags flutter outside the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels.
A titanic struggle and chess match has been running since May 2018 between the US and Iran over who the EU would support in the nuclear standoff.
On Tuesday, it looks like the EU-3 of England, France and Germany finally switched its position to be much more decisively on the US side.
To be sure, the EU-3 threat to snap back sanctions is merely a threat as of now.
The EU-3 can easily give the Islamic Republic more time to return to the nuclear deal’s limits by voluntarily extending the deadline for Tehran to return past late January.
There is no set criteria to force the EU-3 to follow through with the threat, as snapping back sanctions is entirely discretionary – whether it should be or not.
One could even reduce the significance of the EU-3 move further by pointing out that after Iran said last week it was no longer limited by the nuclear deal, that the deal itself was essentially dead anyway.
But this would miss the symbolic and practical power of what the EU-3 just did.
Despite Iran’s dramatic announcement last week about being unbound by the nuclear deal, there have been no signs that it is actually rushing toward a nuclear bomb, and it has kept IAEA inspectors on the ground to ensure that the world can watch what it is doing (at least for known nuclear sites).
This means that for practical purposes, Iran is still abiding by much of the deal to the extent the goal of the deal is to keep it from running toward nuclear weapons.
As long as Tehran does not restore the 75% of its centrifuges that it detached and keeps IAEA inspectors on site, the nuclear deal, with all of its holes, is still serving a purpose for Israel and the US.
So the EU-3 are risking all of that with a threat of full UN sanctions, worse than what the US has promoted, to stare down Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei into restoring some compliance with the deal, or at least ending the constant announcement of new violations.
It may be a bluff, but it may be real – and Khamenei now must think very carefully about whether he is ready to escalate the nuclear standoff further.
If he is not, some kind of deescalation, however grudging, may be his only choice.
If Iran deescalates even slightly, it makes a broader war less likely and turns the Islamic Republic ship around toward compliance for the first time since May 2019.
That would be of huge practical significance.
If Iran ignores the threat, at some point the EU-3 are likely to follow through, and the pressure on Iran will be ratcheted up significantly.
At a symbolic level, Iran just lost the high ground.
In a more logical world, Tehran would never have had the high ground.
But ever since the Trump administration pulled out of the deal in May 2018, the EU-3 have stood by Iran, complimenting it for compliance and scolding Trump for pulling out.
In a technical sense, maybe the EU-3 were right. Khamenei made sure, in public, that Iran was following every piece of the deal until May 2019. 
But the premise of the deal was that Iran would become a less problematic country and try to rejoin the world’s civilized countries.
Instead, after the 2015 deal, Khamenei unleashed IRGC Quds Force chief Qasem Soleimani to double Iran’s efforts to cause trouble in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
The EU-3 largely ignored this issue and other holes in the deal, such as its 2023-2030 expiration dates and its failure to address Iran’s ballistic missiles program.
Paradoxically, this gave Iran the high ground in the diplomatic sphere, especially with Russia and China firmly behind it.
Until now.
If the neutral and Iran-sympathetic EU-3 are threatening Iran with snapping back sanctions, they have finally decided they stand with the US.
The Islamic Republic can complain until it is blue in the face that it only started to violate the nuclear deal a year after Trump pulled out. The EU-3 have realized that if they want to help stop a nuclear Iran, they cannot remain neutral and sympathetic to Tehran anymore due to the 2015 deal’s technicalities.
Ironically, until now, the trend has been to say that Iran outplayed the US in the long-term chess game by maneuvering the EU-3 into a fight with the US.
Many critics of the US assassination of Soleimani on January 3 predicted that the US had overplayed its hand again and would push the world further into Iran’s arms.
But it now appears that Iran’s announcement of noncompliance with the deal was a larger overreach.
It embarrassed even the tame EU-3 into action, with officials saying if they did not act at this point, they would lose all credibility that they meant to enforce the deal.
Iran still may lull the EU-3 into a new round of negotiations to push the threat down the road.
Many global leaders have been waiting for the November US election to potentially shake things up and resolve the standoff.
Yet, to even get to that point, Khamenei will have to carry out at least a short-term retreat from violating the nuclear deal.
If he presses forward and loudly dares the EU-3 instead of trying to sweet-talk them, he may find they have finally developed a spine.
In that case, additional global pressure and isolation on Iran could reach a new high.