Europe, Don’t Go All wobbly on the JCPOA!

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by Peter Jenkins

It looks as though Britain, France, and Germany have decided to appease President Donald Trump to discourage him from withdrawing the United States from the July 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA).

“After meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May… and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said they had agreed to set up a working group of experts on fixing flaws in the landmark 2015 agreement that President Trump has warned he will walk away from this spring unless adjustments are made to his liking.” (PBS)

“France’s foreign minister said on Sunday he would visit Iran on March 5 to discuss its ballistic missile program and the nuclear deal agreed with world powers in 2015.” (Reuters)

“Germany is lobbying among European allies to agree new sanctions against Iran in an attempt to prevent U.S. President Donald Trump from terminating an international deal curbing Tehran’s nuclear program, Der Spiegel…cited diplomats in Brussels as saying that Germany was pushing for new sanctions together with Britain and France.”(Reuters)

It is hard to make sense of this decision to appease.

Unlike Hitler at Munich in 1938, President Trump does not have even half a case. Hitler could claim, with some justification, that the architects of the 1919 Paris Peace had treated Sudeten Germans unjustly. A near-universal view of the JCPOA is that it is both just and a very useful contribution to the cause of nuclear non-proliferation. It rests on an old belief: “Sufficient unto the day.” Whether it is “flawed”, as President Trump alleges, will only become apparent years from now, through International Atomic Energy Agency investigations..

Neville Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier believed that the only alternatives to appeasement were a war with Germany, for which Britain and France were unprepared, or shameful acquiescence in a German attack on Czechoslovakia. Europe’s alternative to accommodating President Trump is to join forces with a large part of the global community to persuade Iran that the JCPOA is worth preserving, even if the United States pulls out.

Hitler was susceptible to appeasement, albeit not for long. President Trump will be as dismissive of his allies’ efforts three months from now as he has been of their arguments for continued US participation in the JCPOA. He will say that they have failed to fix the “flaws” or even to check Iran’s ballistic missile program. This is foreseeable because Iran has made clear that it will not offer further nuclear concessions, or negotiate restrictions to its sovereign right to develop and possess missiles for defensive purposes.

All this is bad enough. Worse is the risk that European accommodation of President Trump will prompt Iran to pull out of the JCPOA in response to a US withdrawal. European solidarity with Iran, on the other hand, can convince Tehran to preserve the agreement.

At present how Tehran intends to react to a US withdrawal is unknown. On October 18, Iran’s Supreme Leader said: ”As long as the other side does not tear up the JCPOA, we will not tear it up.” What he meant by “the other side” he did not define. Did he have just the United States in mind or most of the other parties?

But the way Iran conducted its diplomacy during the various negotiations that culminated in the JCPOA suggests that European choices can help to determine Tehran’s reaction.

If Europe opts for appeasement, it risks being seen in Tehran as siding with a party that is seeking to undermine the JCPOA against a party that has been supportive of it, and fully compliant.

Appeasement also risks being construed by Iran as a violation of paragraph viii of the JCPOA Preamble, especially if E3 lobbying in Brussels for new sanctions is successful:

The E3/EU+3 commit to implement this JCPOA in good faith and in a constructive atmosphere, based on mutual respect, and to refrain from any action inconsistent with the spirit and letter of the JCPOA that would undermine its successful implementation. The E3/EU+3 will refrain from imposing discriminatory regulatory and procedural requirements in lieu of the sanctions and restrictive measures covered by the JCPOA.

Iran’s diplomats value reciprocity, mutual respect, and justice. If European policy demonstrates a similar attachment to these values, European representatives will get a hearing in Tehran. They will stand a good chance of persuading Iran’s leaders that Iran can remain in receipt of most of the benefits promised by the JCPOA, even if the United States ceases to be a party, as long as Iran continues to honor its part of the bargain.

That, then, is one alternative to appeasing Washington. Another, compatible with the first, is to engage leading members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and ask them to make their views known to Iran if, as seems to be the case, they wish the JCPOA to survive US withdrawal. Iran, itself a leading NAM member, values the opinions of most of its NAM peers. It allowed NAM members to influence its reactions back in 2003, when its failure to declare certain nuclear activities and material came to light.

Third, Europe should make common cause with Russia and China, both of which prize the JCPOA, champion the nuclear non-proliferation regime, and have refused to have anything to do with President Trump’s anti-JCPOA campaign.

Last, to stiffen their resolve, Europeans should keep in mind how much President Trump is motivated by a desire to please the leaders of Israel and Saudi Arabia. As Trita Parsi sets out in Losing an Enemy, those leaders tried hard to destroy the JCPOA during the late summer of 2015. Donald Trump’s presidency has given them a chance to try again. In Davos this week the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, told reporters that he had urged German Chancellor Angela Merkel to realize that the “only option is to introduce real and non-cosmetic changes [to the JCPOA] that will prevent the nuclearization of Iran.” Netanyahu has been exaggerating the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program since 1992.

Margaret Thatcher once said to President George H. W. Bush: “Don’t go all wobbly on me, George.” Europe, don’t go all wobbly on the JCPOA!

Photo: High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini.

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Peter Jenkins

Peter Jenkins was a British career diplomat for 33 years, following studies at the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard. He served in Vienna (twice), Washington, Paris, Brasilia and Geneva. He specialized in global economic and security issues. His last assignment (2001-06) was that of UK Ambassador to the IAEA and UN (Vienna). Since 2006 he has represented the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership, advised the Director of IIASA and set up a partnership, The Ambassador Partnership llp, with former diplomatic colleagues, to offer the corporate sector dispute resolution and solutions to cross-border problems. He was an associate fellow of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy from 2010 to 2012. He writes and speaks on nuclear and trade policy issues.

11 Comments

  1. There nothing “just” about the JCPOA, it imposes requirements on Iran that no other country has agreed to, unilaterally, and based on no international legal requirements, certainly not the NPT, and certainly not because of any legitimate concern over nukes, or missiles or anything else
    The truth is that Europe would never stand up to the US, certainly not for Iran. It was a mistake for Iran to ever believe othereiser

  2. Great piece! We should always bear in mind a simple fact: Netanyahu wants the US to attack Iran, as a means of weakening Hezbollah and facilitating the growth of more illegal Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

  3. It would be really tragic if Europe goes wobbly on the JCPOA. First of all, as Ambassador Jenkins points out, it is a perfectly good agreement that has blocked all the paths to Iran ever acquiring nuclear weapons, in return for some concessions that the signatories to the agreement vowed that they would honor in good faith.
    Secondly, it has shown that Iran is open to negotiations provided that they are done on the basis of mutual respect. There are a number of issues of contention between Iran and the West, but they could be resolved in similar negotiations provided that they are not based on bullying and a language of force.
    Thirdly, the JCPOA can provide a model for future agreements with the likes of North Korea and hopefully Israel in order to help the process of non-proliferation. If they see that the West does not abide by its promises, there will be no reason for them to trust America for any commitment that she might make.
    Fourthly, as Trita Parsi has shown in Losing an Enemy, the sanctions did not bring Iran to its knees and, if anything, they were losing their effectiveness and in fact postponed the possibility of an agreement that could have been reached many years earlier.
    Fifthly, the circumstances, have changed from the time when President Obama imposed sanctions on Iran. At that time, Iran was run by a controversial and provocative president whose activities alarmed some European governments. Now, it is run by a moderate president who is in favor of accommodation with the West, who was originally in charge of nuclear negotiations and who has shown in practice that he abides by his commitments. President Obama managed to get even Russia and China to go along with the sanctions. There is no likelihood that they would go along with the unreasonable demand of re-imposing sanctions. What a new attempt to renege on that agreement will do is to create an unnecessary rift between the West and China and Russia, at a time when the relations are already tense.
    Finally, and most importantly, some of those who are pushing President Trump to tear up the agreement or “fix it or nix it” basically intend to destabilize Iran and bring about a regime change. At a time when the world has hardly emerged out of the chaos in Syria, Libya, Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan and is still reeling under the pressure of refugees, it would be the height of folly to destabilize one of the few countries in the region that is fairly stable, and open the Pandora’s box. The West and the world cannot afford more chaos and mayhem in the Middle East.
    For all these reasons, I hope European leaders heed your sane advice and will persuade President Trump that the best course of action is to remain behind the JCPOA.

  4. Given China’s pivotal role in negotiating the JCPOA, which Iran fulsomely acknowledged, it will be interested to see her response to a US pullout.

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