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Commentary | 4 July 2019

Nuclear diplomacy at stake: Can the remaining JCPOA partners join forces to save the deal?

Image of Tarja Cronberg

Tarja Cronberg |Former Member of the European Parliament, Distinguished Associate Fellow at SIPRI and Member of the Executive Board of the European Leadership Network

Diplomacy Iran Nuclear Arms Control Nuclear Weapons United States Global Security ELN Iran

The Iranian government threatens to cross the restrictions defined in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal agreed in 2015 to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. President Rouhani has warned that “Iran cannot afford to be the sole remaining side committed to the JCPOA.” Right now Iran is the only signatory in compliance with the deal. The US violated the JCPOA a year ago and has since then instated a sanctions regime that in effect prevents the other partners – the Europeans, the Russians and the Chinese – from fulfilling their promise of trade and economic benefits. Not only is the deal collapsing, the US and Iran are on the brink of a military conflict.

The nuclear deal is about preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear weapon state.  At the same time, it is about nuclear diplomacy. Is it possible to prevent a country from obtaining nuclear weapons through diplomacy? The Iran example shows that a deal is possible if all parties are willing to compromise. Furthermore, the Iran deal is also about Europe and its role in the world. During negotiations of the Iran deal, Europe achieved a global, long sought role of becoming a major power, negotiating with the world´s superpowers.

The collapse of the deal threatens the future of nuclear diplomacy and the credibility of European foreign and security policy. Since the US violation, Europeans have tried to save the deal, supported by Russia and China. The distressing conclusion now is that the Europeans alone cannot rescue the agreement, although a special European channel to enable trade with Iran on non-sanctioned humanitarian goods is in the pipeline.  The question today is whether the remaining partners – the Europeans, China and Russia – collectively could push back against the US and save both nuclear diplomacy and the JCPOA. The odds are not good: the Europeans are careful not to offend the US; China has its own trade war with the US; and US-Russia relations are at an all-time low. Nevertheless, there are enough concrete proposals to salvage nuclear diplomacy if the political will is there.

A common political, security statement by the remaining partners reaffirming the JCPOA is a minimum alternative. One of the key points of this statement should be that US sanctions should not prevent Iran from fulfilling its commitments agreed in the deal. This applies particularly to the export of excess enriched uranium and heavy water. Furthermore, the partners should confirm, on the highest political level, that the JCPOA guarantees that Iran will not develop nuclear weapons. The problem of the sunset clauses will persist, but Iran is committed to remaining a non-nuclear weapon state as party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The risk that Iran may leave the NPT should be taken seriously, in which case the US violation would challenge the very survival of the NPT.

On the economic front, both China and Russia have already expressed interest in joining the special trade channel (INSTEX) now being established by the Europeans. Given that the channel will only deal with non-sanctioned goods, the impact will mainly be political. A common channel for this type of trade would send a political message and would be a more effective signal than three separate channels in the EU, Russia and China, as the case is now. A common channel could later expand to sanctioned goods, as trust is built among the partners. Including oil would create volume and would be critical to Iran, as the US objective is to eliminate Iran´s oil exports. Nevertheless, there are several other proposals on how to enable oil exports. One is a swap with Russia. Iran could supply the energy needs of Southern Russia, and Russia, in turn, could export oil to both Europe and China. Another alternative would be to establish a common oil bank. During the previous sanction period (2011-2013), the Kunlun Bank of China was able to successfully navigate the sanctions designation they were placed under by the United States. Now the bank has more international activities and, thus, is more fearful of the US sanctions. An independent EU-Russia-China bank could concentrate on oil trade without any US connections.

There is a need for innovative ideas to counteract the fear created by the US sanctions. This applies particularly to the Europeans. The EU Global Strategy from 2016 stresses the need for strategic autonomy. This is often in short supply in the US-EU relationship, as evidenced by the EU´s submission to reporting Iran to the Security Council in 2005. This resulted in a catastrophic reduction in European influence. Today, as the US presses the Europeans to once more accept a return to the Security Council, the situation is different. The transatlantic link in the JCPOA has already collapsed, at least under this US administration. The Europeans have the moral high ground and should be immune to any Russian and Chinese efforts to create further cracks in the transatlantic alliance.

The problem for the Europeans is not only the transatlantic link. The hesitation to cooperate with the other JCPOA partners is a result of how the Europeans understand the requirements of a global role. A global actor means not only working closely with friends and allies in solving global problems. A global actor has to earn its credentials by being able to cooperate and to reach agreements with adversaries.  Seen from this perspective, the US exit from the JCPOA was a gift for European strategic autonomy and the search for a global role. The Europeans now have a free space to act with the two other powers, Russia and China, with whom they have worked for 12 years to rescue nuclear diplomacy with Iran. But time is not unlimited; the deadline of 60 days to rescue the JCPOA that the Iranians set out is almost here.

The opinions articulated above also do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address pressing foreign, defence, and security challenge.