The EU on the JCPOA: Neither “Fix” nor Nix

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by Eldar Mamedov

When President Donald Trump announced his decision to “decertify” the nuclear deal with Iran in a speech on October 13, the EU´s reaction was swift and unambiguous.

Minutes after Trump’s speech, the bloc´s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini warned that, contrary to Trump´s threats to terminate the deal if it is not “fixed” to his liking, he had no authority to do so. The deal is a multilateral agreement endorsed by a UN Security Council Resolution and therefore cannot be changed unilaterally.

This position was fully backed by 28 foreign ministers of the EU member states who met in Brussels on October 16 to discuss Iran. They agreed on a statement that emphasized that “the IAEA has verified 8 times that Iran is implementing all its nuclear related commitments.”

Although the ministers were careful not to criticize Trump openly, they showed that they were fully aware of the internal divisions in the US administration—hence a reference to Trump´s decision as being part of US domestic politics, not a consequence of any factual Iranian non-compliance. The EU further “encourages” the US to maintain its commitment to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and “consider the implications for the security of the US, its partners and the region before taking further steps.”

In accordance with this statement, the EU will in coming weeks intensify its lobbying of the US to fully adhere to the JCPOA as it stands now. The EU made it clear that the renegotiation of the JCPOA is not an option and that it will vigorously stick to it as long as Iran does the same. This effectively makes it impossible for Congress to deliver on Trump´s ambition to “fix” this multilateral deal.

At the same time, the EU will pressure the administration to continue issuing sanctions waivers. The next decision time is in January 2018. Failure to do so, absent Iranian violations, would place the US in material breach of the JCPOA. Contrary to some speculation in Washington on the “middle course” between maintaining the deal untouched and abandoning it, there is no such thing. Trump based his October 13 decision on the assumption that the sanctions relief Iran gets as part of the JCPOA is not proportionate to what it delivers. Consequently, the “middle course” would mean in practice that Iran would have to continue implementing its part of the bargain, while denied the benefits of the sanctions relief. This is an obvious non-starter for other parties to the JCPOA.

In case efforts to convince Washington fail, contingencies are being explored to protect the legitimate interests of the EU companies in Iran. Those would involve the introduction of the EU Council Regulation 2771/96, which blocks the enforcement of extraterritorial US laws in the EU. This regulation was adopted in 1996 as a response to the US law punishing third countries´ companies doing business in Iran, Libya, and Cuba.

Some in Washington believe that de-certification has gained Trump leverage to get Europeans to push back on aspects of the Iranian policies that are unrelated to the JCPOA as a price to keep the US committed to the deal.

True, the EU, especially the big trio of the UK, France and Germany, do share some of America’s concerns, particularly on ballistic missiles, Iran´s role in Syria, support for Hezbollah, and refusal to recognize Israel. The UK, in particular, may be preparing, post-Brexit, to move closer to the US and Saudi Arabia on regional issues. Not surprisingly, the EU3 statement following Trump´s speech was slightly harsher than what either Mogherini or the 28 foreign ministers said in their statements. It made a reference to Iran´s “destabilizing regional activities” and vowed to work together with the US on addressing them.

However, the EU also understands that changing Iran´s policies won´t be feasible if it is pressured to make unilateral concessions. Unlike the current US administration, the EU does not see Iran as the single source of all the problems in the region. It recognizes that containing Iran can only be realistically achieved in a broader regional context, which would also address the problematic policies of other players, such as Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Israel, Qatar, and Turkey.

For example, despite some misleading reporting, Iran is not ready to discuss ballistic missiles with Europeans or anybody else. Iran sees them as an essential pillar of self-defense in a region where its rivals, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel, heavily outspend it on arms. If the Trump administration seriously wanted the EU to push back against Iran’s missiles program, it would have toned down its own aggressive rhetoric and encouraged its regional allies to de-escalate tensions. Since the whole point of Trump´s threats, however, is to isolate Iran, there is nothing the EU can do to convince the Iranians to scale back their missile program.

The EU also has diverging views on regional crises. For example, although the US sees Hezbollah as Tehran´s terrorist proxy, for the EU it’s a key player in Lebanon, with which Brussels needs to keep open its channels of communication. Likewise, the EU finds American assessments of Iranian support for the Houthi rebels in Yemen exaggerated, and considers the Saudi-led war in that country a bigger problem, especially its massive humanitarian cost.

Rather than pushing back against Iran, the EU is more likely to use its soft power and engagement to convince the Iranians to refrain from some reckless or provocative steps, such as new missile tests or harassment of American vessels in the Persian Gulf. In any case, the EU made it clear that these concerns lie outside the scope of the JCPOA. However, the existence of the JCPOA and the channels of communication with Iran it opened makes tackling them easier than would be the case with the dismissal of the JCPOA. This is another powerful reason to preserve it at all cost.

Photo: EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament.

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Eldar Mamedov

Eldar Mamedov has degrees from the University of Latvia and the Diplomatic School in Madrid, Spain. He has worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia and as a diplomat in Latvian embassies in Washington D.C. and Madrid. Since 2007, Mamedov has served as a political adviser for the social-democrats in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament (EP) and is in charge of the EP delegations for inter-parliamentary relations with Iran, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, and Mashreq.

4 Comments

  1. ” Those would involve the introduction of the EU Council Regulation 2771/96, which blocks the enforcement of extraterritorial US laws in the EU.”
    This is needed to stop the bullying tactics of the USA which harm everyone else.
    As for ballistic missiles- remember GWBush did away with the ABM treaty with Russia- the USA is in no position to criticize anyone else.

  2. It is good to read this sensible analysis of the EU versus Donald Trump.
    There is, however, the understandable desire to wish away any thought of war with Iran. But regime change IS the objective of those putting ideas in Donald Trump’s mind. And that would mean boots- on-the-ground war. Therefore, what EU governments say in Washington in the coming weeks should include a firm statement that they will not follow Donald Trump into his Middle East war. Whether the US continues to meet its commitments under UNSC RES/2231 (2015) is secondary to stopping the push for war.

  3. The best way for the EU to prove it’s independence from the US is to ignore all potential upcoming and/or additional nuclear related sanctions that the US may impose on Iran! I’m very doubtful but we’ll see if the Europeans actions match their words?

  4. The EU population has for quite some time realized they’d be far better off having good relations with Russia, their neighbor, rather than the self serving US

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