Europe’s Balancing Act in Maintaining the Iran Nuclear Deal

The Iran Nuclear Deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), hangs by a thin thread. Once a lauded diplomatic effort that verifiably rolled back Iran’s nuclear program, the deal is on life support after the Trump administration withdrew in 2018 and reimposed sanctions. The European Union (EU), led by the three European Iran Deal negotiators, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, are left with a balancing act: avoid offending their American ally while keeping the deal alive.

Trump’s decision to withdraw from the deal and subsequent ‘maximum-pressure’ campaign to bring Iran back to the negotiation table, has been met with skepticism on the European side. Not only is there no Iranian appetite to make a new deal, there is also disagreement within Europe on the legitimacy of Trump’s objectives. Further, there’s no consensus on whether or not Trump’s effort would even be successful.

This skepticism means Europe is caught in the middle. On the one hand, Europe does not want to offend the United States. On the other hand, Europe wants to maintain a diplomatic relationship with Iran and keep the Iran deal alive, which would mean conducting business with Iran. 

The deal imposed important limits on Iran’s uranium stockpile and on its uranium enrichment activities (enriching uranium to high levels of concentration is a necessary step in obtaining nuclear weapons). Furthermore, the deal promised regular access by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to all Iranian nuclear facilities. This allowed monitoring and verification of Iran’s compliance with the agreement.

More recently, the European balancing act has come under severe pressure. Since the U.S. withdrawal and the re-imposition of sanctions, the Iranian government has suspended some of its obligations under the agreement. 

Iran’s actions are designed to put pressure on the European signatories. Tehran hopes Europeans will step in and make an effort to circumvent U.S. sanctions. There has been some action from Europe: France, Germany and the U.K. announced INSTEX — a system that would facilitate business between Iran and the EU and circumvent U.S. sanctions — in January 2019. However, even as several European states have joined INSTEX, the mechanism has yet to garner results. Technical difficulties, lack of motivation from European members to use the mechanism, and Trump administration moves to sanction participating actors have marred its prospects for success.

The diplomatic climate worsened after the U.S. killing of Qassem Soleimani last month. Not long after, the Iranian government announced it would no longer abide by the deal’s uranium enrichment limits though it would continue to cooperate with the international verification regime. The move led France, Germany and the U.K, to trigger the deal’s dispute settlement mechanism. If the dispute cannot be resolved within this mechanism, the UN Security Council gets notified. The Council then votes on continued sanction relief. Given current U.S.-Iran tensions, this would likely mean reimposition of sanctions, essentially killing the nuclear deal.

The death of the Iran deal can and must be avoided. Its demise could destabilize the Middle East even further. A return to pre-deal sanctions would not give the U.S. or Europe much more leverage to negotiate a new deal with Iran. While Iran’s actions further threaten the deal, their willingness to continue with cooperation on verifications shows there is still space for diplomacy. The Europeans are in a unique position to take advantage of that space. They should not let fear of the U.S. keep them from saving the Iran deal.

Europe must therefore see that the dispute is resolved within the deal’s mechanism, and that all parties commit to work on returning to compliance.