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In the deepening conflict between Iran and the United States, the European Union seems well and truly caught in the middle.

In Brussels, talks appear to be the only feasible option at the moment. But the European dilemma seems to be that while they want to put additional pressure on Iran, they don’t want to side too openly with the US.

In other words, how to find the magic formula that keeps you in a position that satisfies both needs.

Until now, the EU was clinging on to the 2015 nuclear deal. The so-called JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) was supposed to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons in return for the lifting of UN sanctions.

But following the pull-out of the deal by President Trump in 2018 and the imposition of more sanctions, Iran has step by step, reduced its own commitments to the deal, further limiting the EU’s ability to weigh in on the issue.

The JCPOA was in fact, the only stake Europeans had in the Iran issue, which made them important as far as contacts and negotiations were concerned. Since the demise of that deal, as well as the escalating military situation, the EU’s influence has diminished dramatically.

Many in Brussels saw some hope in Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif. He was invited back to Brussels in January 2020, in an attempt to bring the Iranians back to the table and negotiate a way out of the crisis. However, the escalating tensions that soared following the killing of Iran’s most senior commander, Qassem Soleimani on January 3, followed by Iran’s retaliatory rocket attacks on US bases in Iraq stifled those hopes.

With each passing day, the EU countries involved in the nuclear deal – Britain, France and Germany – lost more patience with Iran’s violations of its commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal and despite repeated warnings, tensions and friction between Iran and the West increased even more.

Time for action

But now, the EU has called for a decisive solution. It has activated what is known as the Dispute Resolution Mechanism which is incorporated into the agreement. Under this mechanism, when there are disagreements, any party can refer the case to a joint committee from Iran, China, Russia, the EU and the three European states involved. If that commission fails to resolve the disagreement, it is then referred to the UN Security Council.

In turn, if the UN Security Council fails to vote to continue easing the sanctions within 30 days, then those sanctions will be re-imposed as they existed under previous UN resolutions, known as snapbacks.

This of course means that European sanctions against Iran will also become a real possibility. While the Trump administration has naturally welcomed this development, Iran has reacted with fury.

During a televised speech on 15 January 2020, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani angrily responded with an ominous warning addressed to the United States, as well as to Europe.

He demanded that foreign powers withdraw their military forces from the Middle East or face danger.

The speech came at a very critical time for Iran. The country has been rocked by protests and street demonstrations over the accidental shooting down of a Ukrainian airliner just outside Tehran. Most of the 176 passengers on board were Iranian citizens and popular anger is at its height. 

He said, in reference to the Western allies in the region: “Today, the American soldier is in danger; tomorrow, the European soldier could be in danger”.

This is the first time that Rouhani has made a threat towards European forces in the region.

Ironically, Germany, Britain and France have said that they are acting to de-escalate soaring tensions, following the January 6 declaration by Iran to the effect that the country is no longer bound by the uranium enrichment limits.

This itself was of course in response to Washington dramatically raising the stakes, with the assassination of General Soleimani in Iraq. 

However, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif charged that the EU’s investigation into Iran’s alleged non-compliance meant Europe is allowing itself to be bullied by the US. He told reporters : “They (the Europeans) say they are not responsible for what the US did, OK, but you are independent countries. The EU is the largest global economy, so why do you allow the US to bully you around ?”.

As for Rouhani’s threat against US and European troops in the region, there has already been two rocket attacks against military bases in Iraq. In a slow and steady escalation expected to continue, Washington has pointed a finger at Iran-backed Shia militias despite no group claiming responsibility for the latest attacks.

A European bid

And as for the apparent breakdown in Iran-EU relations, Europeans appear more ready to reluctantly conform to the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign, despite explicit denials that this is what the Dispute Resolution Mechanism is triggering.

It is perhaps confirmation for Tehran of its prior charge that the EU is too little, too late or have only half-hearted measures to provide relief to an Iranian economy that has been decimated by US sanctions.

Tehran is of course referring to INSTEX, the European alternative to the SWIFT electronic, bank-to-bank payment messaging system that has been inoperative in Iran due to US sanctions.

EU businesses have not used INSTEX to engage in trade with Iran mainly because those European companies that do business with the US or that rely on the US dollar have generally decided not to risk their relations with American companies over opportunities in Iran.

Foreign Minister Zarif has already emphasized that without the EU’s implementation of its other commitments, INSTEX is quite meaningless.

As for Rouhani, he also strongly denounced the EU for having failed to keep its promises under the 2015 nuclear deal and accused the United States for making the Middle East insecure.

Meanwhile, seizing on the nuclear deal’s apparent unraveling, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said something that will certainly not be taken warmly by Tehran : “If we are going to get rid of it (JCPOA), let’s replace it, and let’s replace it with the Trump deal !”

The Iranian leadership is probably fuming over this. The situation may become even more tense or it may calm down; it is very difficult to predict.

Both Donald Trump and Ali Khamenei are determined to avoid war but at the same time, neither can afford to be seen as weak. So, there may be a viable approach by the US President to substitute the JCPOA which he has always loathed, with a new diplomatic engagement.

How far this can go remains to be seen but this approach is at least a new signal from Washington that is not only sticking to the policy of maximum pressure but also leaving the door open for negotiations and a renewed diplomatic offensive in which the EU will have to play a major role.

Trajan Dereville

Click here to read 2020 February’s edition of Europe Diplomatic Magazine

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