Can Europe Save the Iran Deal?

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Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has wrapped up the first leg of his diplomatic tour to work with the signatories of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, or the Iran nuclear deal), in a final stand for its preservation. Following Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the agreement on May 8, Zarif met with his counterparts in Beijing and Moscow, soliciting their renewed commitment toward the international pact, as well as European leaders, who stand to lose billions if the agreement collapses.

Trump’s decision has without a doubt dealt a blow to Iran. Nonetheless, Tehran is optimistic that the deal has not been completely derailed. “From this moment, the JCPOA is between Iran and five countries,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said in a press statement just moments after Trump’s announcement. “From this moment, the P5+1 has lost the 1.’” 

Iran has abandoned hopes it once had under the Obama administration of gradually rekindling relations by pivoting away from the US toward other world powers, particularly Europe. Rouhani announced that Iran would continue to adhere to the deal as long as European powers took substantive measures to preserve it and continue business with the Islamic Republic despite US sanctions. The UK, Germany and France have all announced that they will remain committed to the nuclear deal with or without the US. On May 15, European leaders held an emergency crisis meeting with Zarif and outlined steps to get the nuclear deal, in the words of EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, “out of intensive care as soon as possible.”

A BLOW TO REFORMISTS 

President Trump had lambasted the deal for being “one-sided” and simply “horrible” and sought to penalize Iran from the benefits promised under it. While Iran adhered to the agreement by destroying its core reactor at Arak, ended uranium enrichment and ultimately abandoned its ambitions of becoming a nuclear power altogether, Trump sought to undermine the deal the moment he stepped into office. In addition to imposing new sanctions, the US president called for a Muslim ban that blocked Iranians from entering the United States; created an atmosphere of uncertainty for American companies that discouraged them from doing business with Iran; and appointed a war cabinet that includes Trump’s hardline national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who have both actively called for military confrontation against the Islamic Republic.  

When JCPOA was signed in January 2016, Iranians were hopeful that the nuclear deal would open both the country’s economy and society to the international community. The deal was thought to not only bring economic growth, but also strengthen reformist leaders like Rouhani who negotiated the agreement and have called for expanding political freedoms inside Iran. Hardliners in Iran, who are isolationists critical of the West and devoted to Islamic law, are capitalizing on Trump’s withdrawal and have criticized Rouhani for trusting Washington. Instead of buckling under pressure by admitting defeat, Rouhani is determined to resuscitate the deal by bolstering relations with the P5. 

The nuclear deal has become a lifeline for the reform movement. For as long as it enables Iran to widen relations with other world powers and bring in foreign investment, reformists will continue to have leverage over the hardliners. Rouhani’s election in 2013 and the 2017 reelection, the latter of which was considered a successful referendum on the nuclear deal, emboldened ordinary Iranians to call for greater social reform. Rouhani has echoed Iranians’ calls publicly and even carried out measures to loosen restrictions on personal freedom, such as divesting of the moral police.

The deal provides President Rouhani with an opportunity to push for more reform and convince hardliners to work with the international community rather than against it. Rouhani is now depending on Europe, which understands how the reform movement’s fate is tied to that of the nuclear deal, to save the agreement. 

European leaders are on the frontline fighting to save the JCPOA. In the weeks preceding the US withdrawal, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel vigorously lobbied Trump against it. Europe not only risks losing a lucrative trade partner, but also understands the ramifications it would have on political stability in the Middle East. Without the deal, Iran would restart its nuclear program, validating Saudi Arabia and Israel’s calls for military containment. These three countries’ proxy wars have already caused insurmountable damage to the region; a direct war could destroy it. 

CAN EUROPE SAVE THE DEAL? 

The nuclear deal is best positioned to contain Iran’s ambitions. As long as there is an international pact with Iran, there is a channel for diplomacy. European powers understand that as long as this channel is open, they’re more likely to be able to engage Iran on other topics, from its ballistic missile program to its involvement in Syria.    

Europe’s best shot at preserving the nuclear deal is through a carrot and stick approach toward the US. On the one hand, it can ignore America’s extraterritorial sanctions by employing the 1996 Blocking Regulation that threatens to freeze US assets in Europe and in the process protects European companies from US legal rulings (such as sanctions). On the other hand, European powers can address Trump’s concerns over the nuclear deal through a separate, parallel agreement negotiated alongside the JCPOA that compels Iran to diminish its ballistic missile capabilities in exchange for sanctions relief. 

If Europe hopes to save the nuclear deal, it will need to learn to stand up to Trump, who has repeatedly sacrificed global security in favor of an “America First” approach. The US cannot continue to dictate international relations and politics. Iran sees Trump’s exit from the nuclear deal as an opportunity to work and bolster relations with other world powers and prove that international agreements can survive without the United States. When Trump announced US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, the international community came together to carry on with business as usual. Iran hopes that it will do the same when it comes to the nuclear deal. 

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