Europe may threaten Iran with possibility of snapping back UN sanctions

It’s a move that may be the final nail in the coffin of the Iran deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

A general view of the Bushehr main nuclear reactor, Iran (photo credit: REUTERS/RAHEB HOMAVANDI)
A general view of the Bushehr main nuclear reactor, Iran
European parties to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal could launch a dispute-resolution process this week that might lead to renewed United Nations sanctions on Tehran, European diplomats said.
It is a move that may be the final nail in the coffin of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said a decision on triggering the dispute mechanism could be made within days, as he argued there was still room for diplomacy.
“The latest decisions mean that the Iranians can now enrich uranium without any constraints, with the quantities they want, in the areas they want, and with the number of centrifuges they want,” Le Drian told BFM TV. “The repeated violations leave us today asking about the long-term validity of this accord. We are considering launching the dispute-mechanism resolution... We will take a decision in the coming days.”
He spoke as Iran and the US continued to exchange heated warning.
“IRAN WILL NEVER HAVE A NUCLEAR WEAPON!” US President Donald Trump tweeted, using capital letters for emphasis.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned the US not to make good on its pledge to hit 52 Iranian targets, one for each American Iran took hostage in 1980.
“Those who refer to the number 52 should also remember the number 290,” he said in a reference to the Iran Air Flight 655, which the US Navy accidentally shot down in 1988, killing all 290 passengers on board.
“Never threaten the Iranian nation,” Rouhani said.
The JCPOA’s future has been in doubt since the US exited the agreement in 2018. Its shaky standing was made even more perilous by the US’s targeted assassination on Friday of Iran’s top military commander, Qasem Soleimani.
The European Union has worked to salvage the deal as Iran has taken steps to renege on some of its commitments. France, Germany and Great Britain, known as the E3, which are signatories to the deal, have been particularly involved in those efforts.
Iran on Sunday took a further step back from its commitments to the 2015 JCPOA pact with six world powers by announcing that it would scrap limits on enriching uranium – though it said it would continue to cooperate with the UN nuclear watchdog. It is a move that could allow it to enrich uranium at a level that would allow for the production of nuclear weapons.
Confirming an emergency meeting of the European Union’s 28 foreign ministers would take place on Friday, an EU diplomat said: “We must be ready to react to Iran’s breaches of the nuclear deal.”
Asked whether this could mean triggering a mechanism that could result in international sanctions being reimposed on Tehran, the envoy said: “It is increasingly likely but not yet decided. Friday will be key.”
Two other diplomats said France, Britain and Germany could make the decision before Friday.
Asked whether the mechanism would be triggered, one of the diplomats said: “Not later than Friday, but yes.”
Iran has criticized Britain, France and Germany for failing to salvage the pact by shielding Tehran’s economy from US sanctions, reimposed since 2018 when Washington pulled out of the JCPOA agreement. Iran, which says its nuclear program is for civilian purposes, has already breached many of the restrictions under the 2015 deal, intended to increase the amount of time Tehran would need to accumulate enough fissile material for an atomic bomb, from two to three months to about a year.
“The vagueness of the Iran announcement makes it more necessary than ever to launch the mechanism, since its whole purpose is to resolve the differences we have on this,” a third diplomat said.
Any party to the deal that believes another is not meeting its commitments can refer the issue to a Joint Commission comprising Iran, Russia, China, the three European powers and the EU. There would then be 15 days to resolve the differences, but the period can be extended if there is a consensus to do so.
The process can ultimately lead to a “snapback” – the reimposition of sanctions in place under previous UN resolutions unless the UN Security Council decides otherwise.
Diplomats have said unless any violations by Iran cross an unacceptable threshold, the Europeans will focus on extending the process rather than pushing toward sanctions. But it is unclear what the Europeans’ breaking point would be.
“The deal is all but dead, but we will do everything to slow and limit the [nuclear] proliferation slope that has been taken to try and save what can be saved,” said a fourth European diplomat, suggesting Europe still needed to gauge what would be the impact of any measures Iran takes – most importantly on the breakout time.
In Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said all members of the Atlantic alliance stood behind the US in the Middle East.
Speaking after a rare NATO meeting in Iran and Iraq in which the US briefed its allies about last Friday’s drone strike, Stoltenberg also called for a deescalation of tensions, echoing the statements of some European leaders.
“We are united in condemning Iran’s support of a variety of different terrorist groups,” he said. “At the meeting today, allies called for restraint and deescalation. A new conflict would be in no one’s interest. So Iran must refrain from further violence and provocations.”
Despite anger last year among European NATO allies over US strategy in the Middle East under President Donald Trump, two diplomats present confirmed that the two-hour meeting at NATO headquarters went smoothly.
They said no envoy challenged US State Department and Department of Defense officials, who briefed them via video conference, over the merits of Friday’s drone strike.
There was also no discussion or criticism of Trump’s list of targets, which includes cultural sites, if Iran were to retaliate with attacks on Americans or US assets, the diplomats said.
There was concern that the killing of Iran’s second-most powerful man could trigger a conflagration in the Middle East, but France, Germany and others said they wanted the Iraq mission to continue.
“It would send the wrong signal if we withdraw,” one NATO diplomat said.
The NATO Iraq mission, made up of several hundred trainers, advisers and support staff from countries of the 29-member alliance and non-NATO partner countries, includes military and civilian personnel.
Established in Baghdad in October 2018 after three years of war against Islamic State terrorists, it is a noncombat “train-and-advise” mission to help Iraqi security structures and institutions fend off future insurgencies. Its personnel do not deploy with Iraqi forces during operations.
UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said his country would take steps to protect its ships at the Straits of Hormuz.
“We’re going to be reinforcing in due course the Royal Navy protection for shipping in the Strait of Hormuz, and on the diplomatic front, our overwhelming message that the prime minister and I are conveying to our counterparts, our European or American counterparts, and also critically our partners in the Middle East, is the importance of deescalating the tensions and finding a diplomatic way through this crisis.
“And I will be talking further with our European partners, our Middle Eastern partners, and I’ll be traveling to the US and Canada toward the end of the week,” he said.