by Eldar Mamedov
More than two years ago, when the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA) was agreed between the P5+1 and Iran, hopes were high that the deal would serve as a basis for a new kind of relationship with Iran—one based on engagement and dialogue rather than containment and isolation. In the words of Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, the JCPOA was meant to be a “foundation, not a ceiling” in Iran’s relations with the West.
Two years later, this notion has been severely challenged, particularly by what was announced as a “new strategy” by the US towards Iran. In reality this strategy is anything but new, as it harkens back to the pre-JCPOA era, with a strong emphasis on pressuring Iran across the board while incorporating no positive incentives at all. On top of that, U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly expressed his strong opposition to the JCPOA itself and an intention to “abandon” it. By refusing to certify the agreement in October, against the verdict of nine reports by the IAEA confirming Iran’s compliance, he passed the buck to the Congress for a reimposition of nuclear-related sanctions. Congress, however, chose to let expire the 60 days window it had for taking such a step, and instead has done nothing.
This, however, doesn’t mean that a collective sign of relief would be in order. The next hurdle to clear is Trump’s pending decision on whether to continue Iran’s JCPOA-related sanctions relief. He has waived the restoration of sanctions twice, but his refusal to certify the agreement in October adds more uncertainty with respect to the next waiver deadline, in mid-January. In fact, if there is any American strategy towards Iran now, it may well be to create uncertainty and ambiguity, which in themselves help to deny Iran the economic benefits it secured as a result of the deal.
As a result of these actions, the core concern of the supporters of the JCPOA these days is not so much to build on it as to ensure its survival. This was evident in European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini’s speech in the European Parliament on 12 December. The debate was convened at the initiative of the European lawmakers who are concerned with the fate of the deal.
In such a context, Mogherini refused to simply limit herself to repeating the well-rehearsed arguments in favor of safeguarding the deal—namely, that it works, delivers on its objectives, and that the nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula added more urgency to safeguarding one successful multilateral non-proliferation agreement. She also made a reinvigorated case for the deal’s strategic importance.
In this vein, she reminded the MEPs that the real prize of the agreement, even more than its non-proliferation effects, would be in unleashing the transformative potential of Iran’s renewed engagement with the world. Contrary to those who repeat the mantra, without any evidence, that the JCPOA gave “breathing space” to a clerical regime that otherwise was supposedly on its last legs, it was the moderate majority of the Iranian society that cheered the deal most enthusiastically. The same majority has since rewarded Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the principal architect of the deal on the Iranian side, with a resounding victory in presidential elections. Delivering concrete benefits from the deal would be a long-term investment that could help set Iranian society on a more moderate trajectory both in its foreign and domestic policies. The transformation of a pivotal country in the Middle East from an adversary to a competitor with which cooperation is possible would be a gain in security, economic and human rights terms.
Conversely, according to Mogherini, weakening the JCPOA would undermine Iranian moderates and strengthen the hard-liners who were never supporters of the deal in the first place. It would ultimately validate the hard-line narrative of the West’s implacable hostility to the Islamic Republic and obstruct practical cooperation. For starters, it would undermine the JCPOA itself, which could mean renewed enrichment on the Iranian side and an end of inspections by the IAEA.
That would also make it much more difficult to deal constructively with other divisive issues, such as Iran’s ballistic missile program, its regional policies, and its human rights violations. To those who criticized the deal for failing to address those issues and concentrating on the nuclear dossier alone, Mogherini reminded them that doing so was not the choice of Iran, but of the U.S. and its Persian Gulf allies. She revealed that the language in the JCPOA that the agreement could pave the way for “more constructive engagement in the region” was introduced at the initiative of the Iranians.
In other words, a successful implementation of the JCPOA and the trust it would generate could be invested in discussing issues that are as much of an interest for Europeans as they are for Americans. The EU, in this sense, has an advantage, since Iranians perceive it as a party that is honoring its commitments under the JCPOA.
Some, also in Europe, dismiss such an approach as naïve, given the supposedly un-reformable nature of the Iranian regime. Facts are not on their side. The only major agreement that successfully addressed Iran-related concerns—the JCPOA—was achieved thanks to negotiations and compromise. What truly is naïve is the expectation that pressure alone will lead to desirable outcomes in other areas of concern.
It is, therefore, imperative that the EU does its utmost not to squander an opportunity to fundamentally redefine its relationship with Iran. The JCPOA is not a goal in itself, but a means to achieve this broader transformation. Mogherini is to be commended for her vision. EU member states should follow her lead.