Five years after Trump's JCPOA exit, European diplomacy on Iran remains muddled

Amid the war in Ukraine and reduced investment in Iran, there is uncertainty around the beleaguered nuclear deal

A street in southern of Tehran, Iran, in February 2022. EPA
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Five years have passed since then US president Donald Trump pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and the most profound implication, perhaps, has been that Europe’s diplomacy on the issue has never recovered.

Senior figures involved in the on-again, off-again talks to restore the JCPOA these days genuinely can’t answer the question of what comes next from a European perspective.

To give one small example, a spokesman for one European government was asked last week what contingencies were in place for the demise of one of the most important sunset clauses in the whole arrangement. The restrictions, due to expire in October 2023, relate to UN Security Council Resolution 2231 that barred Iran from importing or exporting certain types of missiles and drones without Security Council approval.

The government official just shrugged and said that continuing contacts through the E3 (EU commission, France, Germany and UK) were aimed at pursuing the resumption of the deal. Given the European priorities around the Ukraine war, it was an incongruous response to effectively turn a blind eye to the proliferation of Iranian weapons.

A bipartisan bill in the US Congress has sought to put in place measures to address the threat from the increased and soon-to-be-unfettered Iranian exports of materiel now used by Russia on the battlefield in Ukraine. The Europeans have had nothing to say on how to cope with the lack of legal resort when the UN resolution times out.

One school of thought is that there are contingencies on the table, but these are being kept out of the public debate. Speculation revolves around the western partners in the JCPOA taking their own steps to pre-empt the sunset expiry. By activating a “snapback mechanism”, the western countries would gain the leverage that Iran derives from both the prospect of missile proliferation and its recent breakout enrichment activity that puts it two weeks from producing a weapons-grade device.

The sun sets behind the Palais Coburg where closed-door nuclear talks take place in Vienna, Austria, in August 2022. AP Photo
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Figures involved in the JCPOA talks can’t answer the question of what comes next from a European perspective

Diplomats from the three European countries recently briefed the non-permanent members of the Security Council that they were ready to hit the button on the trigger mechanism if the discussions fail to bring a resolution before October.

The question of what that leverage would be used for remains, at heart, a gambit on Iran’s true intention. Tehran may call for a restoration of the JCPOA, but many are convinced that it lacks the appetite to do the deal.

US President Joe Biden has been accused by Iranian proxies of having a “no crisis, no deal” approach to Tehran. That could almost describe the Iranian policy as well.

If there is a follow-up Plan B, it revolves around a compromise that would then remove the potential leverage from both sides.

A temporary pact would probably see Iran subject to a new freeze on enrichment and other atomic capacity-building for relaxation of US sanctions. From the Iranian side, there is said to be an interest in dropping banking and oil sanctions.

After the recent tit-for-tat spat with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the price for Iran could well be a demand to sign up to the Additional Protocol monitor of its newly expanded stock. It is stating the obvious to say that in an interim deal, Europe’s objectives would be for Iran to take at least minimal steps to assure the international community that its nuclear programme is peaceful.

So the Europeans do have some tentative irons in the fire with Iran ahead of October. The international atmosphere is conducive, at least in so far as Iran is pursuing de-escalation with Saudi Arabia.

One issue for the Europeans is that Iran is said to be angling for direct talks with the US.

Robert Malley, the US special envoy for Iran, testifies about the JCPOA during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations on Capitol Hill in May 2022. AFP

That is the reported view of figures such as Abdolreza Faraji-Rad, a former diplomat, and Hassan Beheshtipour, a foreign policy analyst. Robert Malley, the Biden administration envoy, has often been reported to have met Iranian representatives in secret.

His response has been to adopt an increasingly low profile. US State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel was asked point blank last week: “Where is envoy Malley?” Mr Patel did not provide a direct answer, but the exchange did not seem to indicate that the envoy had been despatched on a secret mission.

The departure of Wendy Sherman as deputy secretary of state removes another stalwart of the 2015 negotiations from the scene. US domestic politics are, if anything, turning more hostile to any understanding with Iran, with the Republicans in control of one half of Congress.

The answer to how Iran will choose to play out the countdown to October is likely to lie within its relationship with the two other countries in the JCPOA. It has already shown how invested it is in its partnership with Russia, not least in Syria but also through the supply of drones to the offensive in Ukraine. The mediation by Beijing that led to an agreement to restore ties with Saudi Arabia lifted Tehran’s prospects, too.

As recently as 2015, Iran saw the Europeans as big investors who could come to the aid of its economy. It now calculates that there is no longer a well of European capital to tap into. Conversely, Tehran has high hopes for Chinese investment and these ambitions are less dependent on sanctions removal.

If western powers are not able to sound confident on Iran, there are more reasons for that state of play than Mr Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA.

Published: May 15, 2023, 5:00 AM