Grim Outlook for Iran Nuclear Deal

Hassan Rouhani (Wikimedia Commons)

by Peter Jenkins

Iran’s patience with Europe’s feeble submission to one of the most villainous U.S. administrations of all time finally ran out on May 8.

That day President Hassan Rouhani told the European parties to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), via remarks at a session of his Cabinet, that henceforth Iranian performance of certain of the agreement’s commitments would be conditional on European performance of all its commitments. The European non-performances that he seemed to have in mind are the cessation of purchases of Iranian oil and the withdrawal of bank financing for trade with Iran. Both these non-performances are a consequence of a Trump administration threat to sanction any European entities purchasing Iranian oil or engaging in financial transactions with Iranian entities.

European governments are now in a very awkward situation.

They can threaten the United States with retaliation for any U.S. sanctions imposed on European entities in the Iranian context in the hope that the United States will relent and provide waivers for European oil purchases and the financing of trade with Iran (beyond the very narrow range of goods envisaged under the INSTEX initiative). Until now there has been no sign of the EU having the guts to do this. However, on May 3, speaking about Cuba, the EU’s foreign policy chief said that “the EU considers the extra-territorial application of unilateral restrictive measures to be contrary to international law and will draw on all appropriate measures.” Reuters reported this as a threat to retaliate and/or initiate dispute settlement proceedings at the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

After going through the steps provided by Article 36 of the JCPOA—to which President Rouhani referred in the course of his remarks—the Europeans can notify the UN Security Council that Iran is no longer performing all of its JCPOA commitments. This would make the Trump administration’s day, since the Security Council would then have to vote on whether to continue suspending pre-2016 UN sanctions, and it would only take a U.S. veto to bring that suspension to an end. An Iranian pull-out from the JCPOA would almost certainly ensue, and the nuclear non-proliferation cause (to which the Trump administration seems remarkably indifferent) would suffer.

A third option would be to tolerate Iranian non-performance of the commitments President Rouhani mentioned in the hope of retaining Iran as a party and preserving the enhanced access to Iranian nuclear activities that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has enjoyed since 2015. This would hardly be a low-risk option. The odds are that Iran would respond by escalating its non-performance to a point at which the JCPOA ceased to have much, if any, nuclear non-proliferation value.

This unenviable situation is partly of the Europeans’ own making. They should not have ruled out, as they did within weeks of President Trump’s declaration of economic war on Iran a year ago, the option of retaliating if the United States failed to exclude Europe from the threat of extraterritorial sanctions. They should not have compounded that mistake by taking every opportunity—the French in particular—to echo U.S. rhetorical attacks on Iranian missile testing (a sovereign right, not outlawed by the UN) and so-called malign regional behavior (the allegation of malignity resting on a hypocritical judgement). The Europeans have soured their once healthy relations with Iran and are now suffering the consequences.

Of course, Iran’s decision to use non-performance to pressure Europe into confronting its “ally from hell” is not without risk. In due course, Iran may find itself in a position where face can only be saved by pulling out of the JCPOA. That will risk the Trump administration seizing on Iranian withdrawal as a pretext for destroying Iran’s military facilities, and perhaps much else (if other pretexts have not been found by then). It will cost Iran most, if not all, of the international prestige it won by signing the JCPOA. It may even lose Iran the backing of Russia and China, which care far more about the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) than does the Trump administration.

All in all, it’s a grim outlook unless the Europeans can find the courage to confront the Trump administration, so as to return to performance of their JCPOA commitments and preserve a valuable nuclear agreement.

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.



  1. You cannot trust the Ayatollahs in any way, as they are sworn to their own vows to serve their Mahdi above any laws. Having the best weapons to destroy their enemies is what they wish to do. Expect them to take steps to pursue nuclear proliferation and become the North Korea of the Middle East. In the meantime they will continue to crush Iranians with their own sanctions. Any action against them is more important than internal policies of other countries. Critical commentary on Trump is fine, but don’t condone the Ayatollahs in the process. The world must remove this menace.

  2. Dear Amb. Jenkins, UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, standing next to Sec. Pompeo in London, yesterday “warned Iran “there will be consequences” if it does not comply with the agreement. “I’m sure I speak for my European colleagues in that respect as well.” [CNN] Really? Let’s let EU-remaining colleagues speak for themselves on Iran. Everyone knows that the UK is in Trump’s pocket.
    Regarding what Zarif has said, there are several parts. One is keeping excess enriched uranium and heavy water in Iran, as it is slowly produced, because Washington “has made impossible to continue” [Zarif] shipping it out of the country. Will that justify the war that Bolton/Pompeo want? Probably not, but a second part may, that “drastic measures would be implemented” — ‘removing caps on uranium enrichment levels, and resuming work on its Arak nuclear facility’– if the UK, France and Germany don’t ease restrictions on Iran’s banking and oil sectors in the next 60 days.” [CNN] Yes, that does indeed make the outlook bleak regarding US military action, the war Pompeo says he doesn’t want, ha ha. And, will the UK join the US in that war? I would bet yes. Sorry to write this, but that’s the way the ball is bouncing today.

  3. The Iranian people just like other people in any other nation on this planet deserve to protecting themselves, their country and its resources against any aggression or aggressor. I have been saying it since 1988 when Saddam and his army were repelled from Iran and Iranians should have proceeded with acquiring nuclear arsenals. At the end of the war in 1988, the Iranians were unanimously saying that “they will never allow any aggressor to attack their country again”. But their mission and position were modified in favor of removal of the unjust sanctions because they entrusted the West. Today the sanctions are still in place and iran isn’t equipped with any nuclear arsenals and exposed to aggression again! Still NOT too late!

  4. P5 must decide, collectively or singly, how important NPT is to them.


    Yup. During which the Arab friends of the West are deeply wounded and the oil facilities of the Arabian penninsula lies in ruin.

  5. This headline on AP’ new Bolton commissioned article is funny,(thier purpose is to assure US readers that Iran is capitulating and our policy is working) one should ask AP can you show us when did Iran as for a “NEW NUKE DEAL” president Rohani again today emphasized there will be no negotiation on a new deal, revised deal or other issues until US gets back to JCPOA. AP is doing her job making making fake news at the request of White House.

    Iran threatens more uranium enrichment if no new nuke deal

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