What Europe can do now to save the nuclear deal with Iran

Oliver Meier
Oliver Meier
Azadeh Zamirirad
Azadeh Zamirirad

In response to Tehran’s announcement that it will no longer be implementing parts of the nuclear agreement, the European Union (EU) and its member states should do everything they can to avert the danger of the accord’s full collapse and create the necessary conditions to normalise trade relations with Iran. An assessment by Oliver Meier and Azadeh Zamirirad.

In 2003, when there was a real risk that, after the invasion of Iraq, the United States would also wage war against Iran, the foreign ministers of Germany, France, and the United Kingdom travelled to Tehran – defying Washington’s will – to defuse the crisis surrounding Iran’s nuclear programme. Their effort paid off. The visit marked the beginning of difficult negotiations that took years and eventually led to a nuclear accord, to which the United States, too, had contributed substantially.

With Iran’s announcement on Wednesday that, effective immediately, it will no longer be implementing parts of the nuclear agreement, a similar gesture is needed today from the European side in order to avert the danger of an escalation.

European dilemma

Since early May, the Trump administration has been threatening to sanction companies that participate in the export of nuclear materials from Iran, even though the nuclear deal explicitly provides for such transfers. Against this background, Tehran’s announcement that it will no longer export its surplus of low-enriched uranium and heavy water to third countries seems understandable. Iran’s decision, however, puts the EU and its member states in a difficult spot. Should the International Atomic Energy Agency – responsible for verifying the nuclear deal in Iran – come to the conclusion that Iran is no longer complying with parts of the agreement, Europe will be under significant pressure to act. After all, they have repeatedly stressed that their support for the nuclear agreement is based on Iran’s compliance with all provisions of the accord.

Iran is likely to be disappointed once again if it hopes to achieve substantial economic concessions by threatening to let the agreement fail. In the short term, the EU will not be able to compensate for the devastating economic consequences of US sanctions. Washington’s economic power is too great – something that the Trump administration is fully exploiting, regardless of the consequences for transatlantic relations. The United States is determined to exclude everybody who continues to trade with Iran from their market. All attempts by the EU so far to maintain even rudimentary trade relations – such as registering a special purpose vehicle, through which European and Iranian companies can directly offset goods and services – may seem half-hearted from an Iranian point of view and are indeed too unambitious.

What can Europe do?

The first thing to do now is to make sure that the measures announced by Tehran do not actually lead to significant non-compliance with the agreement. In order to ensure the continued implementation of the nuclear accord, European states should offer, as soon as possible, to store those stocks of low-enriched uranium and heavy water that Tehran can no longer export to countries such as Russia and Oman as a result of US sanctions. To this end, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom should send their foreign ministers to Tehran and invite the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, to participate as well. Such a gesture of support for the nuclear agreement would carry particular weight if the foreign ministers of China and Russia were to also join. The delegation should make it clear to Tehran that a substantial breach of the nuclear deal’s provisions would lead inevitably to the end of the agreement.

It goes without saying that the EU will not be able to make oil trade and banking possible within the 60-day deadline set by Tehran. Nevertheless, it can publicly stress its clear goal of re-establishing oil trade and banking relations in the medium to long term, and it should lay out the necessary steps that need to be taken today.

Furthermore, European member states should also send unequivocal signals to Washington. They must make it understood that, under current conditions, military strikes against Iran will not receive any European support, including through NATO. To this end, they must publicly rule out the possibility that American bases in Europe will be used to support military attacks. At the same time, Europe must point out to Tehran that military provocations by Iran would change their assessment.

In the medium term, Brussels needs to lay the foundation for a possible return to the agreement if a new US administration emerges after the November 2020 elections. The EU should let Tehran know that, in such a case, it would be prepared to implement large infrastructure programmes in Iran. Tehran, for its part, would have to create the necessary conditions for large-scale economic cooperation, including by implementing legislation in the areas of money laundering and the financing of terrorism.

The EU and its member states can substantiate the credibility of their offers by immediately building up instruments that will protect them in the long run against illegal extraterritorial sanctions. The establishment of institutions such as a genuine European Central Bank that can also operate independently of the US dollar is necessary in any case if Europe’s goal to achieve strategic autonomy is to be taken seriously. An investment in the nuclear agreement is not only significant with regard to security in the Middle East and the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, but also a prerequisite for Europe to have the capacity to truly act independently in its foreign policy.

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