Europe sees opportunity for transatlantic cooperation against Iran

November 21, 2020 - 23:47

TEHRAN – While the United State election results are yet to be officially announced, European countries signatory to a 2015 Iran nuclear deal seem to be in a rush to lay the groundwork for a transatlantic policy that would secure U.S.-European interests with regard to Iran.

As Joe Biden prepares to move into the White House, politicians and diplomats around the world hold their breath to see how Biden would deal with Iran after four years of aggressive rhetoric from Trump against Iran.

Biden himself has said in a mid-September op-ed for CNN that he will rejoin the Iran nuclear deal – officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – if Iran reverses the five nuclear steps that it has taken to reduce compliance with the nuclear deal following Trump’s withdrawal from it.

“I will offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy. If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations,” Biden wrote. “With our allies, we will work to strengthen and extend the nuclear deal's provisions, while also addressing other issues of concern.”

Since then, Biden has refrained from elaborating on his plan to rejoin the deal, and since the November election, in which he was projected to win, he has been quite silent about his expected Iran policy. But this doesn’t mean that there are no behind-the-scene consultations. It seems that European diplomats and “former U.S. officials” are busy drawing plans to create consensus between the U.S. and Europe on Iran. These diplomats and former officials even prompted speculations about how Biden might return to the JCPOA.

Citing former U.S. officials and European diplomats, NBC News outlined on Saturday a step by step strategy that could lead to both Iran and the U.S. returning to the nuclear deal.

 Rather than removing sanctions all at once or Iran returning immediately to full compliance, a more likely scenario could see an incremental approach over a period of three or four months, NBC reported. It said that a first step could have Iran freeze its nuclear work, in return for some level of sanctions relief. Further steps could see Iran eventually return to compliance and all the nuclear-related sanctions lifted.

Blame game

The U.S.-European cooperation was on full display during a recent phone conversation between Biden and French President Emanuel Macron. During the conversation, Biden told Macron that he would like the U.S. to once again work with its European ally on Iran's nuclear policy, according to Newsweek. Biden “expressed his readiness to work together on global challenges, including security and development in Africa, the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, and Iran's nuclear program,” Biden’s transition team said in a press release emailed to Newsweek.

The three European countries that are signatories to the JCPOA – France, Germany, and the UK (E3) - have stepped up their criticism of Iran in recent days, with France even renewing calls for new negotiations over Iran’s missile program and its influence across the West Asia region.

The E3 issued a joint statement last week, expressing concerns over Iran’s nuclear activities, which they described as “hollowing out the core non-proliferation benefits” of the JCPOA.

“As participants to the JCPOA, we reiterate our continued commitment to the preservation and full implementation of the nuclear agreement…. We have lifted sanctions as foreseen by the JCPOA and taken additional efforts to allow Iran to pursue legitimate trade, by developing the financial mechanism INSTEX,” the E3 statement said, adding, “However, despite these good faith efforts, Iran has engaged, for a year and a half now, in numerous, serious violations of its nuclear commitments. We continue to be extremely concerned by Iran’s actions, which are hollowing out the core non-proliferation benefits of the deal. Advancements on Research & Development have irreversible consequences.”

The European parties to the JCPOA also called on Iran to “immediately” roll back its nuclear steps.

“It is now critical that Iran immediately reverses its steps and returns to full compliance with the JCPOA without further delay. We remain committed to working with all JCPOA participants to find a diplomatic way forward and we intend to pursue these discussions within the framework of the JCPOA,” the statement said.

Iran hit back at the E3, accusing them of playing “political blame games.”

In a statement on Friday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said the E3 is expected to implement its JCPOA commitments in full, act upon what the Joint Commission has approved, and return to the full implementation of the JCPOA instead of playing such political blame games.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran's peaceful nuclear activities are totally legal, legitimate, and within the framework of international law, and are pursued as part of the inherent and essential rights of the world countries,” the Friday statement said.

Khatibzadeh also pointed out that the E3 failed to uphold their obligations under the nuclear deal, underlining that Iran’s nuclear steps were taken in accordance with the terms of the nuclear deal.

“Following the United States' withdrawal from the JCPOA and the reimposition of sanctions, and considering Europe's continued failure to live up to its commitments to helping Iran reap the economic benefits of the removal of sanctions as per the JCPOA, the Islamic Republic took nuclear steps according to the articles 26 and 36 of the JCPOA,” Khatibzadeh said, adding, “These steps were taken in full compliance with the JCPOA, and the country has always stressed that they will be reversible once the other parties to the JCPOA implement the deal in full.”

Playing politics

But despite their failure in complying with their commitments, the Europeans continue to demand more concessions from Iran.

On Thursday, the French presidency called for broader negotiation with Iran that includes Iran’s regional role and its missiles, according to an Asharq Al-Aawsat report.

According to the report, a French official pointed out in a press briefing on Thursday that the Iranian nuclear program has reached a dangerous stage, and that would not be the case if Iran continued to respect its obligations stipulated in the 2015 nuclear agreement.

The official also said any subsequent negotiations with Tehran should expand to include the ballistic missile program, regional policy, and what he called “interference in the affairs of other countries.”

If true, this is not the first time that France calls for broader negotiations with Iran. In late August 2018, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian warned Iran “cannot avoid” talks on thorny issues like its ballistic missile program and its role in the West Asia region, according to an AFP report at the time.

Earlier in November 2017, French President Emanuel Macron said during a visit to Dubai that he was “very concerned” by Tehran’s missile program. One month earlier, Macron told his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani that France remained committed to JCPOA but stressed the necessity to have a dialogue with Iran on other strategic issues, including Tehran’s ballistic missile program, a proposal ruled out by Iran.

In June 2019, during a meeting with President Trump in France, Macron once again called for new negotiations with Iran that would contain Iran’s nuclear activities and reduce its missile capabilities as well as restrict Iran’s influence in the region.

Now that Biden has won the election –at least in the eyes of the Europeans – the E3, especially France, seem to be trying to strike a tone of defiance against Iran in what appears to be an effort to affect the content of the potential talks between the Biden administration and Iran. This may the reason why Iran has called on the E3 to stop playing political blame games. The Europeans, France in particular, have a long history of playing politics against Iran. At the final days of the nuclear negotiations, France struck a more hardline tone to get more concessions from Iran but it ultimately fell into line with other parties to negotiations after Iran showed defiance.

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