The nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 (also known as the E3/EU+3) is beginning to look like a pyrrhic victory. U.S. President Donald Trump has had the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in his crosshairs since taking office in January 2017. A year into his term, he declared that unless the U.S. Congress and European allies addressed the deal’s “disastrous flaws” by 12 May 2018, the U.S. would withdraw from it despite Iran’s ongoing, independently verified compliance. Amid rising tensions in the region, Israel has once again alleged that Iran has neither come clean about its past nuclear activities nor abandoned its nuclear weapons ambitions. Europe has made last-ditch efforts to meet Trump’s challenge. But it may very well need a backup plan to salvage the nuclear deal if the U.S. withdraws or carries out its part of the bargain half-heartedly.
Negotiators for the U.S. and the UK, France and Germany, collectively known as the E3, have made progress toward accommodating the White House’s concerns. In the last week of April, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were in Washington to give talks a final push. Yet, notwithstanding the rollercoaster quality of Macron’s visit (first suggesting an understanding might be struck, saying there is no “plan B”, then dashing hopes the following day), at this writing the success of their entreaties is highly questionable. Indeed, even were Trump to accede, uncertainty will likely continue to hover over the accord, economic benefits to Iran will therefore dwindle, and Tehran’s incentives to remain in the deal will diminish.
Since Trump’s ultimatum, negotiators have discussed four main concerns: Iran’s ballistic missile program, its regional policies, the inspection of Iranian nuclear sites and so-called sunset clauses contained in the JCPOA, which refer to time-limited restraints on Iran’s nuclear capabilities. The contours of a transatlantic understanding have emerged, particularly on the first three items. But the E3 insist they will not unilaterally change the JCPOA’s terms, which means that – contrary to the White House’s demand – they will not agree to automatically punish Iran if it expands its nuclear activities in ways consistent with the deal’s terms. They also are unconvinced that Trump will ever abide by a deal he has consistently derided. In fact, they fear he will reject whatever compromise the negotiators reach.
President Trump’s administration has four broad options: reach some kind of understanding with the E3 that includes U.S. compliance with the JCPOA and continued waiving of U.S. nuclear-related sanctions on Iran; postpone a decision by waiving sanctions once more to allow for additional negotiations with the E3; refuse to waive sanctions but delay their imposition, again to allow for additional negotiations with the E3; or withdraw from the deal, refusing to waive sanctions and beginning penalising those who violate them. The first option would be the best but also, based on what Macron said at the tail end of his visit, and given Israel’s recent accusations, the least likely. As for the other three, they range from the undesirable to the frankly destructive. Each would, at a minimum, mean the damaging ambiguity surrounding the nuclear deal’s fate would persist.
Absent from the deliberations are Russia, China and Iran. Moscow and Beijing have both expressed continued support for the accord. As for Tehran, it has left no doubt as to its determination to respond if the U.S. reimposes sanctions; there is greater uncertainty as to how it would react to a U.S./E3 agreement that preserves the JCPOA but sanctions its missile program and regional activities, suggests a tough U.S./E3 line toward Iran’s future nuclear program, and insists on negotiating a broader deal addressing all those issues. Iranian leaders bitterly criticised Macron’s suggestion of a U.S./E3 push for a broader agreement with Iran covering all those matters, seeing it as rewarding the U.S.’s threats to exit the deal by appeasing Trump rather than simply insisting on Washington’s full compliance.
Views vary in Tehran, but those who advocate continued adherence to the deal and attempting to drive a wedge between Europe and the U.S. are losing ground. Iran’s reaction to a U.S. withdrawal or to what it perceives as a hostile U.S./E3 understanding could be to violate its own JCPOA commitments; respond asymmetrically against U.S. forces or assets in the Middle East; or, in the most extreme version, withdraw from the deal and go even further by pulling out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). As talks with the U.S. continue, the E3 should be careful not to act in ways that will be read in Tehran as moving the goalposts given Iranian domestic dynamics: opinion is rapidly turning against any additional compromises with what Tehran views as a mercurial U.S. and an unreliable Europe.
At this point, it appears that without a European initiative vis-à-vis Tehran – and barring a last-minute understanding with Washington that meaningfully preserves the JCPOA – the deal either will expire instantaneously or die a slow death. To minimise these risks, the E3 should cease focusing solely on keeping the U.S. in compliance with the JCPOA; it should also devise a means of keeping Iran on board even if the U.S. is not. As the E3 continue discussions with the U.S. until the 12 May deadline, they should develop a plan B to roll out if a compromise agreement proves elusive or the U.S. keeps chipping away at the JCPOA’s intended dividends for Iran. This contingency plan could succeed if the E3 present it to Iran as an economic cooperation package with short- and medium-term components. Of course, such an effort would be conditioned on Iran’s continued compliance with the JCPOA and meaningful action toward reforming its financial institutions and de-escalating tensions in the region.
A unilateral U.S. withdrawal would doubtless deal a serious blow to the JCPOA. Proactive E3/EU steps could ensure it is not fatal.
This is the executive summary of a new report by the International Crisis Group. The full report is here.