How Europe has gone astray on the JCPOA and Iran

The latest steps in the ongoing European effort to obstruct the Trump administration’s pressure campaign vis-à-vis Iran include the €18 million “support package.”

An Iranian Officer of Revolutionary Guards, with Israel flag drawn on his boots, is seen during graduation ceremony, held for the military cadets in a military academy, in Tehran, Iran June 30, 2018 (photo credit: TASNIM NEWS AGENCY/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
An Iranian Officer of Revolutionary Guards, with Israel flag drawn on his boots, is seen during graduation ceremony, held for the military cadets in a military academy, in Tehran, Iran June 30, 2018
Since US President Donald Trump’s pullout from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) last May, Europeans – especially the EU under the direction of foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini – have been doing everything in their power to undermine US efforts to recreate pressure on Iran as a starting point for a new negotiation with Iran that would cover its nuclear, missile and regional activities.
The latest steps in the ongoing and determined European effort to obstruct the Trump administration’s pressure campaign vis-à-vis Iran include the €18 million “support package” extended to the Islamic regime, and, more significantly, the Special Purpose Vehicle that France, Britain and Germany are seeking to put in place in order to evade US sanctions. These states envision an alternative payment system that will skirt the global financial system, and enable them to continue trade with Iran despite US sanctions.
So far they have not succeeded in setting up the system – Austria, Luxembourg and Belgium refused to host it, although France and Germany have recently pledged to do so – and Iran is threatening that “they will not wait forever” for the EU to implement “operational solutions” to Trump’s pressure campaign. Iran President Hassan Rouhani has even threatened that due to the effect of sanctions, Iran will not be able to stop drugs, refugees and terrorism from pouring into Western states.
As far as the nuclear deal is concerned, the Europeans place all blame on the Trump administration for leaving the deal, rather than on Iran for its ongoing regional and missile-related aggressions. The Europeans continue to maintain that “the deal is working” because Iran is fulfilling the minimal concessions that it made according to the JCPOA.
But do the Europeans not recognize that there are serious flaws in the nuclear deal? Do they not understand that because of these flaws, the deal that was achieved is a far cry from the originally stated goal of the P5+1, which was to achieve a comprehensive and final deal that would prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear state? And don’t they see that it is in everyone’s interest to try to strengthen the deal, especially in light of the fact that Iran has become an even more aggressive regional actor since the JCPOA came into force?
The horror of the Islamic regime – as far as its behavior toward the Iranian population and across the Middle East – is clear to see: the war crimes in Syria, the transport of weapons and advanced technologies to Hezbollah, the testing of missiles that can carry a nuclear warhead, and the steadfast refusal to allow the IAEA to inspect non-nuclear facilities (especially those revealed in the nuclear archives) to name a few. Still, the upshot of the European statements is that they want to keep the JCPOA intact at almost any cost. While they say it is out of concern of their own security, one can only wonder how that squares with the assessment of states in the Middle East that are actually directly threatened by Iran, and find no solace in the JCPOA. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the interests that actually top the list for Europe have more to do with economics and transatlantic relations than nuclear nonproliferation. Indeed the Europeans are fuming about Trump’s unilateral decisions, and complain that implementing a sanctions regime has violated their “sovereign right” to conduct trade with Iran.
While today Europeans seek to pin the blame on the Trump administration, the fact is that their approach to Iran and the nuclear crisis has always been more lenient than that of America. On the whole, Europeans do not consider Iran to be a threat, and from the beginning of the negotiations with Iran on the nuclear file in 2003, the only strategy the EU would ever consider is “diplomacy.” The biting sanctions of 2012 were a bitter pill for Europeans to swallow, despite the fact that the role of these sanctions in the overall process proved to be crucial. The pressure that came with these sanctions – causing the leaders to fear for the viability of the regime – ultimately set the stage in 2013 for the first negotiation with Iran in which the international community had some leverage over this dangerous proliferator.
In response to the change in US policy toward Iran that came with the Trump administration, there have been a few indications of a willingness among some of the European states to take a tougher stance on Iran. This was first seen in statements by France’s President Emmanuel Macron over the course of 2017, and culminated with his four-point plan presented to Congress in late April 2018, in a last attempt to convince Trump not to leave the deal. In his plan, Macron was especially focused on dealing with Iran’s ballistic missile program and its dangerous regional activities. But there are no indications that this plan is still a basis for discussion. Additional indications of a somewhat tougher European approach came in late 2018 in response to Iran’s test of a missile that can carry a nuclear warhead. France and the UK were clearly upset by the test of a nuclear-capable missile, and convened a meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss it. But beyond convening this meeting they were not willing to take any concrete steps for fear of upsetting the JCPOA.
At the level of EU institutions, the unwillingness to address Iran’s aggressive and threatening behavior in the post-JCPOA period is even more pronounced. At a press conference on August 6, Mogherini claimed the deal has two parts: Iran gives up its nuclear program and the international community opens up trade and economic relations with Iran. She said the second pillar has to be maintained if there is a desire for the first pillar to be maintained. And so far, according to the foreign policy chief, Iran has been compliant fully with its nuclear commitments. In other words, Mogherini’s position is that the deal ensures Iran gives up its nuclear program.
But nothing could be further from the truth. Iran made only minimal nuclear concessions in the context of negotiations over the JCPOA to secure maximum sanctions relief. It has given no indication of a strategic U-turn in the nuclear realm, and continues to threaten Israel – who Rouhani recently called a cancerous tumor – with destruction. Moreover, the JCPOA itself ensures that Iran can continue with its nuclear program in that it allows work on R&D into an entire range of advanced centrifuges, and also excludes Iran’s missile program, which it continues to advance virtually unhindered. Finally, the deal has an expiration date, so it is at best a temporary arrangement.
Rather than actively undermining US efforts to address Iran’s malign activities, European states should join the effort. Their interest in resuming trade with Iran, or punishing the Trump administration for acting unilaterally are a poor excuse for not taking their often-stated nonproliferation values and goals with due seriousness. It flies in the face of reason that the Europeans don’t see what a dangerous nuclear proliferator Iran still is, despite the JCPOA. Standing with Iran, rather than the US, on this matter cannot be accepted.
The writer is a senior research fellow at INSS and head of its Arms Control and Regional Security Program.