How Europe could stop the march to war with Iran

The key is to resist artificial deadlines from Tehran and give the formal mechanisms in the nuclear deal time to work through

June 19, 2019
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Photo: DPA/PA Images
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Photo: DPA/PA Images
On Monday, during a press conference at the Arak Nuclear Complex, Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran spokesperson Behrouz Kamalvandi announced that Iran will exceed the 300kg stockpile limit for enriched uranium imposed on it under the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), within the next ten days.

The announcement follows earlier threats from Iran to reduce its compliance with the JCPOA by the start of July, if Europe fails to meet Iranian expectations of the economic benefits due under the deal. The special trade vehicle that the Europeans introduced in January—INSTEX—which was intended to allow European companies to continue doing business with Iran despite American sanctions, has apparently failed to impress. Little wonder, considering that it has yet to host its first transaction, although the European parties to the JCPOA are reportedly working on delivering one soon. Last week's attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman exacerbated tensions further, with the United States pointing the finger at Iran, and Tehran accusing the White House of waging an “Iranophobic” campaign. 

According to remarks by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Europe can still save the JCPOA if it acts quickly. But the rush seems to be largely artificial and arbitrary. It does not align with the early July timeframe previously set by Iran, or the expected August publication of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) newest report on Iranian implementation of the JCPOA. The reason for the added rush from Iran’s side is unclear. One possible explanation may be that it is a response to the Gulf of Oman incident and accusations of Iranian involvement; a Hail Mary pass to secure some reassurance from the Europeans that they will not succumb to increasing American pressure following the attacks. Perhaps not coincidentally, the ten days run out just in time for the G20 summit, where President Trump will meet with his European counterparts and where Iranian sanctions will no doubt take up significant airtime. 

Instead of taking the bait and bowing to Iranian antics, Europe needs to let the work of the IAEA and the dispute resolution mechanism built into the JCPOA take their course. As of the latest IAEA report, Iran is in compliance with the terms of the deal. With the next publication in August, the nuclear watchdog will once again comment on Iranian compliance and confirm whether threats to exceed permitted stockpiles hold any water or if Tehran is bluffing. Until then, it would be foolish to take Iranian declarations—whether confirming compliance or denying it—at face value or to make any rash decisions on their basis. Federica Mogherini—the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and one of the original architects of the JCPOA—has urged restraint, noting that the EU’s “assessment on the implementation of the nuclear deal has never been, is not and will never be based on statements but on the evaluation that the IAEA makes, the reports that the IAEA produces.” Other European and world leaders would do well to follow Mogherini’s lead. 

If Iran does surpass the enriched uranium limits before the report’s release, the compliance monitoring provisions set out in the JCPOA would catch the violation and report it to IAEA inspectors. If non-compliance is suspected, the matter could then be referred to the JCPOA Joint Commission by one of the state parties to the deal. The dispute resolution process would then be allowed to unfold within the Joint Commission, which may involve several rounds of deliberation, including referrals to ministers of foreign affairs or the appointment of an advisory board before a final decision is reached. A process bound to take much longer than ten days.  

This mechanism provides ample opportunity to delay a pronouncement of Iranian non-compliance until the August report, or until any violations can be properly confirmed. Europe should take advantage of this to give time to ongoing diplomatic and economic efforts to save the deal. In the short term, this would mean providing Iran with assurances that Germany and France will refrain from attributing blame for the oil tanker attacks until a full investigation is completed or until compelling evidence is presented. This will require some careful diplomatic leg work, as the United Kingdom and the United States have already attributed blame to Iran and both will be deploying an additional military presence to the region. Additionally, Europe would have to reassure Iran that it will continue to publicly urge the United States to demonstrate restraint, especially since Washington has refused to de-couple the nuclear question from other Iranian activity in the region.

Such reassurances may be insufficient to keep the Iranians from declaring that they have surpassed their enriched uranium limit in ten days’ time but may prevent further shows of desperation in the short term. Diplomatic overtures will ultimately have to be supported by action. Before the IAEA August report, European leaders must secure an INSTEX transaction to demonstrate the special-purpose vehicle’s viability as a channel for trade and to satisfy Iranian concerns. This will be doubly-challenging, as the transaction would have to be significant enough to meet Iranian expectations and since businesses have understandably been hesitant to engage with Iran in light of American sanctions. However, there are few other trust-building options at this juncture. 

In the meantime, the best option is to keep calm and carry on.