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.

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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.



  1. There is little benefit to Iran to comply with all of the JCPOA’s restrictions once Trump breaks the agreement. IMO Iran will pursue JCPOA lite.

    1. They will allow enhanced inspections and will not pursue weapons development. They will not even manufacture even excessive amounts of nuclear fuel.

    2. They will start purchasing military equipment from Russia, why should they delay arms purchases once Trump breaks the JCPOA?

    3. They will enhance their nuclear program for submarine based nuclear reactors, nuclear medicine, and stop abiding by the JCPOA’s starvation diet for nuclear fuel. They will NOT enrich to weapons grade.

    This has the advantage of making Trump pay the price for breaking the deal, preserving their image, and pursuing their national interests.

  2. The first thing Iran has to do is to “shut up” those who are even making any verbal threat. While doing that it should expand its military to a point that the US is forced to leave the region! That would be the hemlock poison that Trump, Nothin-ya-who and MbS have to drink!

  3. At one point or the other Europe must stand up to US bullying. James Larrimores’s ‘hardball’ stand is the one and only solution to the present Trump ideology. Anyone who has studied Trumps psychology will know that he must always be approached and confronted from the position of strength or retaliation, as the Chinese have started to do as far as the trade war is concerned. The imposition of sanctions are the very worst types of a trade war — and the American administrations have imposed such a war on Iran and the Iranians (not on the Iranian government as they claim) in the past four decades. Iran is completely encircled by American military bases, and continuously being threatened to be bombed by the US, Israel and now Saudi Arabia. It is unfair, unethical, undiplomatic — simply impossible and senseless — to expect that Iran will let go of its one and only means of defense which includes the missiles and its influence in the region. The incongruous American diplomacy and the unwitting support of the ‘wrong side’ in all conflicts after the Second World War has led to the present mess in the Middle East and North Africa. Let each nation solve its own problems and if there is any need for a regime change it should be inborn and not imposed by a foreign power. Many politicians, especially Americans, appear to be quite oblivious to the modern world — the age of direct or indirect colonialism is over.

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