Security and Foreign Policy

US, EU and Iran: Where Does The Future Of The JCPOA Lie?

Following the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal, European parties to the deal will have to determine a path forward. Marika Annunziata examines the complex relationship between the U.S., E.U. and Iran that will inform a way forward for the future of the JCPOA.


Earlier this week, the United States President Donald Trump decided to withdraw the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) also known as the Iran Nuclear Deal. Now, President Trump has to deliberate the severity of sanctions to reinstate against Tehran, which is set for review by Saturday, May 12, 2018.

On January 12, President Trump reluctantly kept the deal alive by waiving sanctions, but he issued an ultimatum to France, United Kingdom, and Germany, all three allies and parties to the nuclear agreement (JCPOA) to fix the agreement’s flaws. President Trump reiterated that “in the absence of such an agreement, the United States will not again waive sanctions in order to stay in the Iran nuclear deal. And if at any time I judge that such an agreement is not within reach, I will withdraw from the deal immediately.” The Trump administration made it clear on several occasions that they believed the JCPOA benefited Iran more than the USA; President Trump vehemently stated that the only option was to “fix it or nix it” as suggested by the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his speech at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2017.

US negotiators are continuing to work with United Kingdom, France and Germany on a different pact in order to address Trump’s three major complaints, including penalizing Iran for ballistic missiles, which were not part of the original deal as well as expanding time and geographical limits for international inspectors, while prolonging the limits on Iran’s nuclear activity, currently scheduled to expire in fifteen years. Furthermore, President Trump called on Europe to step up the efforts to counteract Tehran’s destabilizing role in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Netanyahu, as he unveiled 55,000 pages of classified Iranian documents and a wall of CDs during a public speech on April 30th, made a statement against the validity of the agreement and with regard to the real objectives of the nuclear programme claiming Iran lied. He claimed he was in possession of “new and conclusive proof of the secret nuclear weapons program that Iran has been hiding for years from the international community in its secret atomic archive”.

Prime Minister Netanyahu found a receptive and responsive interlocutor in President Trump’s stance towards the Islamic Republic of Iran, which is not far from the historical opinion of the American political establishment. Republicans and Democrats shared over the years, since the 1979 hostage crisis, the same position against the Islamic Republic; conversely, Iran has never considered the United States a reliable ally.

Nevertheless, the 2015 nuclear agreement with Tehran may be considered a major achievement of the transatlantic cooperation in the 21st century. Yet, the US has failed to build on that cornerstone. Europe’s hope that the nuclear deal could have a smooth path for a transatlantic approach to Iran has grown ever dimmer since Barack Obama left the White House. President Obama pursued the nuclear deal with the purpose of turning the purely antagonistic Washington-Tehran relationship into a more pragmatic one. But under President Trump, all high-level contacts between the US and Iranian officials have been severed.

President Trump’s strategy of “delegitimation” hinges on Iran’s development of a ballistic missile program, its sponsorship of groups included in the US Department of State’s list of terrorist organizations, and its support for the Assad regime in Syria that make it a major source of destabilization and conflict in the region. The 2017 National Security Strategy depicts the Islamic Republic as a “dictatorship” and a “rogue state” that is “determined to destabilize regions, threaten Americans and our allies, and brutalize [its] own people.” The underlying idea is that Iran counters US policies not because of vested interests or defensible concerns, but because of its political regime itself.

Iran has previously perceived the US threat of reinstituting all restrictions and sanctions as an attempt to fuel regional instability and to discourage and hinder the normalization of Iran’s economic ties with the rest of the world. Trump’s decision last October to “decertify” the nuclear deal with Iran urged Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to ask for the observance and enforcement of the terms of the agreement. To this day, the Islamic Republic filed eleven complaints to the JCPOA Joint Commission chaired by the European High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security policy, Federica Mogherini.

Often underestimated, Europe’s role in the process that led to the signature of the JCPOA was substantial. For the European Union, the JCPOA has been a success. In exchange for sanctions relief, Iran has dismantled and massively downgraded, even if only temporarily, the most sensitive parts of its nuclear program, agreed to an almost permanent inspection plan, and it does and will refrain for the foreseeable future from crossing the nuclear threshold to develop nuclear weapons. France, Germany and United Kingdom (the EU3) were the first to begin the negotiations with Iran, and set up a working group to identify the appropriate arrangements to address Trump’s demands. The EU3 have also coordinated with a liaison group of the Italian government with the aim of checking Iranian meddling in Yemen and Syria, and embarking on a dialogue with Tehran on its regional politics in the Middle East.

Although most European governments share the opinion that Iran’s policies contribute to regional instability, they still consider conditional engagement to be the wisest course of action. The main European forces are also unwilling to relinquish the new opportunities for trade and investment resulting from the lifting of EU and UN sanctions. Overall, Europe has much more at stake, such as a normative interest in abiding to the nuclear non-proliferation regime, a strategic interest in dialogue with Iran over regional issues, and an economic interest in relaunching trade and investment ties with Tehran.

Thus far, the Europeans have acted upon their interests. In response to Trump’s “decertification,” the EU3 released a joint statement reaffirming their support for the JCPOA. Undoubtedly, abiding by the JCPOA despite US consternation might create a number of additional problems in Europe. But maintaining the deal could provide Europe with the political wherewithal to re-negotiate terms of the agreement or at the very least protect their own interests in the absence of the United States.

Marika Annunziata holds a Master’s Degree in law from LUISS Guido Carli University in Rome with a main concentration in European and international law. Marika is currently a trainee attorney and is studying in order to further pursue diplomatic career in Italy.

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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