Iran Can Help Europe to Resolve Trump’s Nuclear Challenge

Federica Mogherini and Javad Zarif (U.S. State Department via Flickr).

by Peter Jenkins

On March 5, after discussions with his French counterpart, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted:

EU should compel US to abide by JCPOA rather than trying to appease it by repeating its extraneous demands…US and EU should stop pouring…weapons into our region instead of questioning Iran’s missiles…Iran has always been ready to work for peace in the region, but with serious partners…not engaged in appeasement gimmicks.

Zarif’s irritation is understandable. It must seem to him that France, Britain, and Germany (known as the E3) are embarked on a fool’s errand. There is no reason to think that their proposal to impose EU sanctions on Iranians involved in Iran’s missile program and supporting the Syrian government can satisfy President Donald Trump, least of all now that he is flanked by two Iran hawks, Mike Pompeo and John Bolton. The E3 proposal does not come close to meeting President Trump’s demand that “flaws” in the JCPOA be “fixed.” And, according to an Axios report dated March 13, “President Trump told Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in their meeting at the White House [on 5 March] that he won’t show flexibility in the negotiations with France, Germany and the U.K. on amending the Iran nuclear deal.”

It must also seem to Zarif that the E3 are betraying the spirit of the JCPOA. After all, the E3 are proposing to punish one of the parties (Iran) that has complied fully with its JCPOA obligations by imposing sanctions to placate a party (the United States) that is in breach of its JCPOA obligations.

What is unclear, however, at least to this observer, is whether it has occurred to Zarif to undermine the E3 case for sanctions by offering the EU an assurance that Iran will stay true to the JCPOA as long as Europe, Russia, and China also stay true. Instead, Iranian signalling on this question has been ambiguous. On February 17, President Hassan Rouhani “asserted that his country will adhere to the terms of the nuclear deal…till ‘the last breath…We as a country have always adhered (to commitments). We will not violate it (the pact) and will stay on board. It is the order of God.’”

But on February 22, one of Zarif’s deputies, Abbas Araghchi, told a BBC interviewer:

We are not convinced that the deal can survive without the US. It is up to the other participants of the JCPOA to show and to convince Iranians that they can deliver JCPOA even without the US. This is not our understanding for the time being. If the US is out, we would also actually go out because there is no deal anymore.

It must be galling—as well as a source of domestic political difficulty—for Zarif and President Rouhani that Iran is not receiving the full measure of economic benefits that they expected when they concluded the JCPOA. But the JCPOA was and is about much more than sanctions, trade, and investment. The JCPOA enables Iran to reassure not just the West but its non-Western peers that its nuclear intentions are peaceful and legitimate. It normalizes Iran’s standing as a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency, a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and a member of the United Nations. It allows Iran to continue occupying moral high ground vacated by President Trump’s administration. It contributes to Iran enjoying the geopolitical backing of Russia and China, which is especially useful when the White House is in such belligerent hands.

Moreover, even on the trade and investment front, Iran is better off now than it was prior to the JCPOA, US delinquency notwithstanding. Its oil exports have regained pre-oil-sanctions levels. Large Chinese, Japanese, and Korean credits have become available. Peugeot, Renault, and Total are among the European companies that have resumed operations in Iran or announced billion-dollar investments. Iran’s economy grew by 6.5% in 2016-17 and is forecast to have grown at 4.2 % in 2017-18. And ways of mitigating US attempts to deter European investments and Iranian purchases from Europe may yet be found.

Last, there is much to be said, surely, for denying President Trump, and those in Israel and Saudi Arabia whom he seeks to please, the satisfaction of destroying the JCPOA. Thwarting and frustrating these adversaries is something that can be savored.

In short, it seems obvious that Iran shares Europe’s interest in preserving the JCPOA with or without the United States, and in minimizing the adverse consequences of US withdrawal or continued trouble-making. If so, Iran should be making this clear to the EU. That will deny the E3 the argument that Iran must be sanctioned to avert a JCPOA collapse, and it will strengthen the hand of those in the EU who have doubts about the wisdom of the E3’s proposal.

The best outcome to this affair would be for President Trump to be brought to understand that the JCPOA is fit for purpose as a nuclear non-proliferation agreement and, as such, serves US interests. But, if that cannot be done, it is essential that Europe and Iran make common cause of preserving the JCPOA, avoid alienating one another, and deepen their dialogue on issues of concern such as regional missile proliferation.

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. Another solid, sensible contribution by Amb. Jenkins.
    He didn’t quite go as far as the ‘hardball’ that I believe is required in dealing with Trump/Pompeo/Bolton. I also think it is important to place the focus on UNSC/2231, which incorporates the JCPOA but is a broader and controlling international legal instrument. Here are ideas on how hardball could be played by the Europeans.

    E3 Ambassadors, as a group and perhaps together with EC Foreign Secretary Mogherini, state to the US Administration: The US will be the one in default on its UNSC/2231 obligations when it ‘withdraws’. The other parties intend to continue to meet their obligations under UNSC/2231 as it stands. Discussions are ongoing with Iran on how to proceed without the US. We do not want a dispute with the US over UNSC/2231, but if the US Administration starts one, there will be a response. If the US were to reimpose unilateral secondary sanctions on companies and financial entities for activities authorized under UNSC/2231, let there be no doubt that means will be found to retaliate against the US.

    All of that would be done diplomatically behind closed doors. Make Trump tweet about it, if he cannot hold himself back.

  2. Iran has fulfilled & is fulfilling its obligations under the agreement. Whether US remains faithful to her commitments under the deal is of no consequence to Iran, as long as the other signatories, E3+Russia+China, take practical and concrete steps to ensure that they circumvent the adverse effects of Trump leaving the agreement now and in the future. It is up to the EU to fill in the vacuum generated as a result of the US potential departure from this agreement, and assure Iran of this not Iran’s responsibility to further appease and assure those who tear apart International agreements.

  3. The US has already effectively withdrawn from the JCPOA when it failed to allow “U turn” dollar transactions and blocked international backing. Iran has already been deprived of the “benefit of the bargain” in this deal. It isn’t up to Iran to keep the US in the deal, especially not under Trump.

    The EU-3 acted like charlatans in the Paris Agreement negotiations, promising Iran that they recognized the right to enrichment while at the very same time, assuring the US otherwise. Their double-dealing ended up embarrassing Khatami, who had suspened enrichment for 3 years with nothing to show for it at the end except an “empty box in pretty wrapping” and according to Jack Straw, this may have helped get Ahmadinejad elected.

    It is time for the EU to step up and get off the fence. The World is watching.

  4. Nothing will stop Iranians overthrowing Islamic terrorist, Iranians are standing with Trump, Bolton. If you don’t support the aspiration of Iranian for freedom then I must say you are part of the terrorist network collecting money and finances, cheap oil and gas has been pouring from Iran into Europe for the last 40 years. Enough is enough Iranian would rather make direct trade deal with America rather than Islamic terrorist make deal on their behalf. Europe and UK are at the verge of collapsing, they fucked up the world and they got to pay the price for it.

  5. Can anybody please name one agreement that the US has honored in recent decades? Over and over the US is proving and exposing itself as a bad partner with which no agreement can be signed! The 4+1 (minus US) should play hardball with the US and hold their end of the bargain. If the US pulls out and the EU implements new sanctions then Iran has no choice but to finish its incomplete project! And hopefully Iran can test a bomb the day after everyone pulls out of JCOPA! Sometimes the answer to force is force and apparently that is the only language that Washington understands as exhibited in its behavior respect to NK which the US has been forced to talk to them!

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