Recently, the proclaimed “death” of the Iran nuclear deal has been presented as the reason behind the rapidly escalating tensions in the Strait of Hormuz and the basis for pessimistic speculations regarding an imminent war between Iran and the United States. Interestingly enough, hard-line Iranian officials seem eager to agree that the deal without the full compliance of the United States is a total failure. However, declaring the agreement null and void is based on a dangerously short-sighted emphasis on the US role in it. As far as Iran is concerned, having a tension-free relationship with Washington and enjoying possible trade ties could have been a happy by-product of the deal. But these were not the main goals of the agreement.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was signed in 2015 between Iran and 5+1 countries to curb Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for lifting crippling UN sanctions and other measures that were designed to put economic pressure on Tehran. As a result of this agreement, not only did Iran manage to again start selling oil, but it got to renew its outdated passenger airplanes by signing massive contracts with Boeing and Airbus. Post-UN sanctions Iran also attracted many foreign investors, who saw the Iranian market of 80 million people as a perfect opportunity to expand their businesses.
Unfortunately, US President Donald Trump famously called the agreement “the worst deal ever,” announcing a unilateral US withdrawal from it in 2018. Since then, United States has renewed a vast set of economic sanctions against Iran, specially designed to put a total halt on the country’s oil exports that constitute Iran’s main revenue source. US sanctions are targeting not only Iranian companies and individuals, but anyone who does any kind of business with Iran, including the remaining signatories to the nuclear deal: Russia, China and members of the European Union.
Is the Deal Dead?
Political analysts and TV pundits around the world rushed to pronounce the Iran deal dead following Donald Trump’s decision to abandon it. Some moderate commentators described it as “a dangerous blow to the most important diplomatic achievement in the Middle East,” but these voices are barely recognizable in a storm of irrational hyperbole. “At what point do you give up pretending that the nuclear deal has a future and start to grapple with the potential consequences of its demise?” argued one columnist. “The Iranian nuclear deal looks all but dead,” states the first line of another analysis.
To add fuel to the fire, Iran continues to threaten to leave the JCPOA as well, and has started to take steps toward abandoning the agreement in recent months. This has been interpreted as the final proof that there is no hope for the agreement.
On the other hand, while a pessimistic narrative regarding the future of the deal persists, the EU has taken over the mediating role between Iran and the United States. Europe, seemingly stuck between America and Iran, has tried to calm the recent tensions. On July 15, after talks between EU foreign ministers, the union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, reassured the international community that Iran’s recent activity to increase its stockpile of uranium and surpassing the uranium enrichment levels agreed under the JCPOA are all reversible and not significant.
The EU has also come up with different mechanisms such as INSTEX (Instrument for Supporting Trade Exchanges) to facilitate trade with Iran by circumventing US sanctions and appeasing Tehran’s demands to do more to make up for the economic shortfall created by America’s withdrawal.
However, attributing a mere mediating role to the European countries is the opposite side of the same coin that labels America as the main Western player in the nuclear talks, which is factually incorrect. The term “Iran nuclear negotiations” was first used to describe a series of negotiations between Iran and the E3 (UK, France and Germany), when Iran agreed to join the nuclear talks in 2003 in order to maintain and enhance its trade ties with the European Union, which was Iran’s largest export market at the time. Similarly, Iran is threatening to pull out of the JCPOA not because it couldn’t receive the Boeings the country was looking to purchase, but because American sanctions are an obstacle in the way of smooth trade relations with the EU.
The path toward the signing of the JCPOA is mostly ignored today, partly due to the immediacy of the current crisis. Understanding this historical context is necessary for having a clear grasp of the recent tensions.
How It All Began
From the early days of the Islamic Republic, Iran failed to establish a healthy relationship with the West. In 1979, only a few months after the Islamic Revolution, a mob of angry university students entered the American Embassy in Tehran, taking its staff hostage. The 444-day-long crisis resulted in America and its Western allies putting pressure on the newly established regime by imposing economic sanctions. Though the effects of these sanctions are hard to measure due to the fact that the country was going through a devastating war with neighboring Iraq, it undeniably had a negative effect on the Iranian economy at the time.
In the following years, Iran accused some European countries of providing Saddam Hussein’s regime with chemical weapons that were used against Iranian civilians during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. Tensions with the European Union escalated further when the Iranian supreme leader at the time, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa calling for the assassination of the British author Salman Rushdie as an atonement for his book, “The Satanic Verses,” that reimagines the life of Prophet Muhammad. This, coupled with the results of the Mykonos trial, which in August 1997 found an Iranian citizen guilty of murdering a Kurdish opposition leader following an order by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, caused many European countries to recall their ambassadors from Tehran.
It was only after the surprising election of Mohammad Khatami, Iran’s first reformist president, in April 1997, that the EU started to reengage with the Islamic Republic. President Khatami’s eagerness to engage with the outside world, best seen in his speech to the UN General Assembly urging for “dialogue among civilizations,” was perceived as a signal to the European countries to start a series of negotiations with Iran regarding a wide spectrum of concerns, alongside expanding trade ties with Tehran.
As has been suggested by EU officials, even though Iran’s current violations of the JCPOA are calibrated measures and reversible, if the country abandons the nuclear deal, it is only about a year away from developing a nuclear weapon.
Soon after, Germany became Iran’s biggest trade partner, and others followed. However, in 2002, the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, an opposition military group that advocates for the overthrow of the regime, revealed documents regarding Iran’s secret nuclear facilities. The incident pushed the relationship between Iran and the EU into a new phase. Representatives from the United Kingdom, France and Germany were joined by Javier Solana, then high representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, to form the so called E3/EU framework to negotiate with Iran. This became the birthplace of the nuclear talks that Tehran agreed to primarily in order to keep its trade ties with the European Union.
The United States joined the talks in 2006, forming the 5+1 alongside China, Russia, France and Germany, in order to facilitate a new round of negotiations with Iran after the country’s nuclear case was referred to UN Security Council. Thereafter, years of mostly fruitless negotiations under the conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad brought ever more crippling UN sanctions on the country’s economy, accompanied by continuous Western threats that “All options are on the table.”
Finally, after the reformist candidate Hassan Rouhani won the presidential election in 2013, helped along by the Obama administration’s emphasis on diplomacy and negotiations, the Iran deal became a reality. This was not only a manifestation of the effectiveness of diplomacy, but it also helped Iran’s reformists to solidify their power by emphasizing their great achievement.
The Main Counterpart
Understanding the EU’s role in the creation of the Iran nuclear deal as a key partner and not simply a mediator between Iran and the United States opens the field for a deal without Washington. Ayatollah Khamenei has insisted several times, before and after the signing of the agreement, that the negotiation with the United States will be limited to nuclear talks, and that Tehran has no intentions in developing any form of relationship with Washington. The supreme leader has also rejected the notion of any negotiations between Iran and the United States while the latter is not complying with the JCPOA.
This might be a dead end — if we interpret the JCPOA as an agreement between Iran and the US. However, despite concerns about Washington’s betrayal of its international commitments, the Iran nuclear deal would be salvaged if Tehran could maintain its trade ties with the EU. This is exactly what EU is trying to do.
A realistic viewpoint concerning the state of the Iran nuclear deal at the moment is perhaps best presented by Federica Mogherini as “not in the best of health, but it’s still alive.” This is a shared view of all the signatories to the Iran deal, supported by Europe’s efforts to establish a new payment system that allows their companies to continue trade with Iran. There has been some controversy and skepticism about how far INSTEX can cajole Iran into complying with the JCPOA due to the lack of information about the system’s details. But an eager Russia has stepped forward to support the system, and China might do so as well in the near future. This might be the key to success but, as the former British Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt has put it, although there is a small window to salvage the Iran deal, it is closing really fast.
As has been suggested by EU officials, even though Iran’s current violations of the JCPOA are calibrated measures and reversible, if the country abandons the nuclear deal, it is only about a year away from developing a nuclear weapon. It may not be an immediate danger for Europe, but in the already destabilized Middle East, the rise of a nuclear Iran would be catastrophic. Iran’s greatest rival in the region, Saudi Arabia, has publicly stated that if it becomes clear that Iran is developing a nuclear weapon, Riyadh will start its own program. There are uncertainties about how Israel, the only nuclear power in the region, will react to all these developments.
Even without an atomic bomb, the prospect of a severed relationship between Iran and the EU would not be desirable, at least for the Western allies. Let’s not forget that China will buy Iranian oil, whether or not there are sanctions in place. Furthermore, Iran’s active involvement in China’s Road and Belt Initiative could push Iran to form an alliance with Beijing, which could lead to the expansion of Chinese influence in the region. Iran can also pressure the European Union on matters such as drug trafficking and immigration from the war-torn Middle East.
And, of course, there is the prospect of a military clash that not only involves the United States but, as warmongers such as Trump’s former National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wish, would drag a coalition of European forces into another war in the Middle East.
A dying nuclear deal is also affecting the political atmosphere within Iran in an irreversible way. After the signing of the JCPOA, Tehran managed to resume trade with some European companies but, with the US out of the agreement and various punishments for companies doing business with Iran in place, it is unlikely that Iran’s economy will recover any time soon, or at least until measures like INSTEX prove their potential. This is bad news for the reformist President Rouhani, who was elected on the promise of solving the county’s economic problems by negotiating with the West.
Iranian hard-line conservatives opposed any negotiation with foreign powers from the very beginning of the nuclear talks. Consequently, the US withdrawal from the deal only proved the conservatives’ point of view, serving as proof of how unreliable the West is. Considering the fact that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has been a vocal critic of Rouhani’s diplomatic achievements, one can easily draw a line between internal rivalries in Iran and the IRGC’s recent hostile activity in the Strait of Hormuz.
The nuclear negotiations were initially launched as a hope for the European countries to deradicalize the Islamic Republic of Iran and for the Iranian side to continue trading with Europe. The JCPOA proved that this can be achieved, if imperfectly. The Iran nuclear deal is still in place and will continue if the European Union can maneuver away from the sheer absurdity of the world according to Donald Trump, in which drama is winning over reality.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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