European plot: How to kill an agreement?

December 21, 2020 - 20:13

TEHRAN – While other parties to the Iran nuclear deal underline the need to strike a balance between rights and obligations within the deal, the Europeans keep calling on Iran to reverse its nuclear measures that are meant to bring back balance to the nuclear deal.

Less than a week after a meeting of the Joint Commission of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) at the level of political directors and deputy foreign ministers, the JCPOA parties held an informal virtual meeting on Monday to discuss the latest development surrounding the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

The foreign ministers of Iran, China, France, Germany, the Russian Federation and the United Kingdom, as well as the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, attended the December 21 meeting, which was agreed on last week during the meeting of the JCPOA Joint Commission.

The foreign ministers and the chief EU diplomat discussed a variety of issues related to the JCPOA such as preserving and fully implementing the deal, reiterating the need to continue the cooperation between Iran and the UN nuclear watchdog, and more importantly the prospect of a U.S. return to the nuclear deal.

“JCPOA participants re-emphasized their commitment to preserve the agreement and stressed their respective efforts in this regard. They discussed that full and effective implementation of the JCPOA by all remains crucial and discussed the need to address ongoing implementation challenges, including on nuclear non-proliferation and sanctions lifting commitments,” said a joint ministerial statement issued following the Monday meeting.

It added, “Ministers underscored the important role of the IAEA as the sole impartial and independent international organization mandated by the UN Security Council to monitor and verify the implementation of the nuclear non-proliferation commitments under the JCPOA. They stressed the importance of continued good faith cooperation with the IAEA.”

The statement also addressed the issue of the potential U.S. return to the JCPOA, saying, “Ministers acknowledged the prospect of a return of the US to the JCPOA and underlined their readiness to positively address this in a joint effort.”

The meeting came at a time when new circumstances arose after Joe Biden won the U.S. presidential election in November and the Iranian parliament passed a nuclear law that, if implemented, would amount to Iran's withdrawal from the JCPOA.

Following his election win, Biden said he still stands by his campaign promise that he would rejoin the JCPOA once he moved into the White House but at the same time he hinted that keeping this promise would be “very difficult” and “hard,” a claim that was widely seen as a ploy to build on what some Washington hawks call the sanctions “leverage” Trump left him. They mean that Biden should take advantage of the sanctions Trump imposed on Iran to make amendments to the JCPOA such as extending the deal’s sunset clauses while addressing other issues such as Iran’s defensive missiles and its regional influence.

Biden has largely remained silent about his Iran policy and his foreign policy team has also been tight-lipped about Iran. So it remains to be seen how they would approach Iran after they take the helm in Washington.

But so far one thing has been clear: the Europeans seem to be pushing for exactly the same goal that Washington hawks sought under the Trump administration. First of all, they told the Biden team not to rush back into the JCPOA, according to a report published by the Wall Street Journal.

“There is growing concern about Iran’s nuclear research, but European diplomats say they don’t want to rush new U.S. president to re-enter pact,” the report said.

While the Biden team kept silent on the JCPOA, the European signatories to the 2015 nuclear deal – France, Germany and the UK (E3) - took the responsibility of expanding the JCPOA on themselves. They openly called for broader negotiations with Iran that include Iran’s missile program and its regional influence. Of course, this call came only after the E3 was sure that Biden won the November election, a move that sparked suspicions in Tehran that the E3 is once again assuming the bad-cop role vis-à-vis the good-cop role that is apparently being played by Biden.

“A return to the previous agreement will not suffice anyway. There will have to be a kind of ‘nuclear agreement plus,’ which is also in our interest. We have clear expectations of Iran: no nuclear weapons, but also no ballistic missile program that threatens the entire region. Iran also needs to play a different role in the region,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Mass said in a recent interview with the German magazine, Der Spiegel. He added, “We need this agreement precisely because we distrust Iran. I have already coordinated with my French and British counterparts on this.”  

Iran strongly rejected the European push to reopen the JCPOA, saying the Europeans were not eligible to call for a new agreement while they had already failed to honor their obligations under the existing one. Iran has long said that the balance between rights and obligations within the JCPOA is lost. In a bid to restore the lost balance to the JCPOA, Iran’s Parliament has recently passed a law that would substantially increase the country’s nuclear activities if the other parties – namely the E3 – failed to implement their commitments under the JCPOA.

The nuclear law, officially called “Strategic Action to Lift Sanctions and Protect Nation’s Rights,” introduces a step-by-step strategy for the Iranian government to increase nuclear activities in few months if the other side failed to implement certain commitments. The Europeans guarded against this law instead of fulfilling their commitments although they know that Iran will not implement the law if they keep up their end of the bargain.

On December 7, the E3 issued a joint statement on the JCPOA, voicing “great concern” over the Iranian nuclear law.

If Iran is serious about preserving a space for diplomacy, they said, it must not implement this law.

“Such a move would jeopardize our shared efforts to preserve the JCPOA and risks compromising the important opportunity for a return to diplomacy with the incoming U.S. administration,” the December 7 statement said.

During the Monday meeting, the E3 once again called on Iran not to increase its nuclear activities and thus waste the last chance to revive the JCPOA in a thinly-veiled threat that if Iran moves forward with its nuclear steps, the 2015 nuclear deal will not be saved during the upcoming Joe Biden administration.

Speaking after the Monday JCPOA meeting, Mass said that Iran should avoid taking any tactical steps that would make it hard for Biden to reverse President Donald Trump's decision to quit the deal, according to Reuters.

“To make possible a rapprochement with the U.S. under Biden, there should be no further tactical manoeuvers of the kind we've seen too many of in the recent past,” he told reporters. “This chance, this last window of opportunity, must not be wasted.”

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab also echoed the same warning while putting more emphasis on preventing Iran from implementing its nuclear law.

“Today I met with the JCPOA participants, where I made it absolutely clear Iran must not implement the recently announced expansions to its nuclear program. To do so would undermine the opportunities for progress we hope to see in 2021,” Raab said in a tweet shortly after the JCPOA ministerial meeting.

Europe is working to preserve the JCPOA and then expand it without compensating Iran for the losses it incurred in the past few years but this approach could backfire. Because Iran has made it clear that the JCPOA commitments cannot be implemented one-sidedly. Therefore, the E3 needs to change course on Iran before it’s too late.

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