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It is about time that the EU starts contingency planning for what it plans to do on May 13, the day after U.S. President Donald Trump’s ultimatum on the nuclear deal expires. In an extremely unusual—and very unwelcome—step, Donald Trump announced on January 12 that the United States would withdraw from the agreement formally known as Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) by the end of the current 120-day sanctions waiver period, unless its European allies agree to “fix” the deal on three issues: include Iran’s ballistic missile program; enhance the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) inspection regime; and eliminate the deal’s “sunset clauses” to indefinitely extend its overall duration.
While addressing these points merits careful consideration, the EU is right in insisting on doing so without violating the JCPOA and without a gun being held at its head by its closest ally. However, the question is not one between “saving the JCPOA” or “siding with the United States.” It is one of deciding what the EU’s interests at stake are—and how best to pursue them. Incidentally, these have not changed much since the summer of 2003, when three European states embarked on high-level diplomacy with Iran against the backdrop of the U.S. invasion of neighbouring Iraq.
At the time, the Europeans aimed to 1) prevent the bomb (as a hitherto secret Iranian nuclear enrichment program had previously been discovered); 2) avoid another war (with talk in Washington being full of Tehran being the next destination after Baghdad); and 3) prove its own actorness (as the EU’s role in international affairs was still fairly inchoate). If anything, with the White House increasingly deserted by the “adults in the room,” these three interests are more pronounced today than ever.
With regard to preventing another nuclear bomb in the Middle East, there are two avenues to pursue: One is the strict implementation of the JCPOA itself, the other is to contain other regional powers in their nuclear ambitions.
First, the EU needs to make it clear that, despite more fundamental worries about the future of the nuclear deal, it intends to be strict in supervising its enforcement. As the convener of the Joint Commission overseeing the JCPOA’s implementation, and with three member states—France, Germany, and the United Kingdom—represented in this body, the EU bears particularly responsibility for not turning a blind eye to Iran.
If any suspicions arise as to the use of certain sites inside the country, or any activities outside the scope of the agreement, the EU needs to work with the IAEA to resolve those quickly and in a satisfactory manner. Asking for “anytime, anywhere” inspections as the opponents of the deal do only to bring it to a fall, is harmful; pursuing credible leads so as to ensure that no material is diverted towards military purposes, is what the inspections are about.
Similarly, the EU should think about the “day after;” that is, what will happen once the JCPOA’s main constraints on Iran’s nuclear program expire after 10 and 15 years, respectively. However, this is not about unilaterally and indefinitely extending the mutually agreed upon rules of the deal itself; instead, this is about enhancing the general non-proliferation regime so that Iran—just as any other state in the region and beyond—could not use the cover of a civilian program to pursue military aims.
This approach, however, starts with an acknowledgment that Iran even after the “sunset” does not return to the status quo ante from before the deal: With the agreement being fully implemented over its duration, Tehran will begin ratification of the provisionally applied Additional Protocol to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2023. That means that even after the expiration of the JCPOA, Iran will be under stricter safeguards than, say, Saudi Arabia—not to mention Israel, the undeclared nuclear weapons power that remains outside the NPT.
This is where, second, a transatlantic dialogue on possible regional arrangements with regard to nuclear energy comes into play. Under the deal, Iran is the first and so far only country of the Persian Gulf with a civilian nuclear energy program. However, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are to follow suit with their first nuclear reactor to go online later this year. Different from Iran, this South Korean-built program comes without an indigenous enrichment capacity and is thus less proliferation-prone. Saudi Arabia, in contrast, has announced its intention to acquire both, a nuclear energy program (aiming at 17 reactors by 2032) and an enrichment capacity—ideally delivered by a U.S. company. The latter, under current Congressional laws, are permitted to export nuclear technology only if the client renounces to such a dual-use capacity. Very ominously, the Saudi crown prince has threatened that it actually intends to build a nuclear weapon if Iran were to get one.
On this particular point, the EU needs to press Washington not to prize a potential billion-dollar contract for one of its nuclear energy companies over the security of the Persian Gulf region. More generally, the EU should encourage regional actors to enter into a dialogue on nuclear energy and nuclear safety. All countries with a nuclear program should be party to important international instruments such as the IAEA Convention on Nuclear Safety, the Vienna Convention on Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage, and the Convention on Assistance in the Case of a Nuclear Accident or Radiological Emergency.
While being standard fare for any “normal” civilian nuclear power, a regional dialogue on implementing such regulations would be an important confidence-building measure. It could also be the starting point for a more wide-reaching proposal as submitted by Iran’s foreign minister: to implement under UN auspices a regional security arrangement building on “measures to enhance the security and stability of the region” as stipulated in UN Security Council Resolution 598 of 1987 (asking for an end to the Iran-Iraq war).
While this approach is within both the EU’s interest and the stipulations of the JCPOA, it would also go half-way to meeting Washington’s demands for “fixing” the deal. However, it would do so not to please the United States but in order to strengthen the agreement’s implementation and preserve its main elements well into the future.
Such a careful—as opposed to confrontational—approach is also in line with the EU’s second objective, to avoid another war in the region. It is worth recalling in this context, that the existing wars—from the civil wars in Syria and Yemen to the international coalition battling the self-declared Islamic State—are part of the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq invasion. The dismantling of the country’s state structures and the persecution of its Sunni minority turned into the breeding ground for Islamist terrorists, while allowing Iran to extend its influence beyond the Euphrates and towards the Indian Ocean in the first place. This means that also some European states that were part of the 2003 coalition, as much as they would like to ignore the events in the region, do bear some responsibility for containing today’s conflicts there.
With military confrontations between the Israeli army and Iranian-backed forces in Syria becoming both more violent and more frequent, there is an urgent need for the EU to lean on Tehran to do its part to lessen the tensions—and the possibility of an accidental escalation. This means, inter alia, to address Iran’s missile program, which Tehran claims is for defensive purposes only while other states in the region see it as a threat to their own security. And while this program was outside the negotiations of the JCPOA, the UN Security Council Resolution endorsing the deal calls upon Iran “not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology” (Paragraph 3 of Annex B of UNSCR 2231 of 20 July 2015).
The EU should use the vague but binding language to initiate a dialogue that addresses the security concerns of the Persian Gulf’s littoral states. Again, this is not about singling out Iran as the only, or even the main, threat to regional security. Instead, by recognising conflicting interests and proposing mechanisms for conflict prevention and resolution, such as advance notices of military manoeuvers and missile tests, it aims to establish multilateral channels that can help reduce the tensions in this volatile region.
In a similar vein, the EU has an interest to restrain Saudi Arabia and its military campaign in Yemen as well as its support for jihadist groups in Syria. Already two years ago, the European Parliament voted in favour of a resolution proposing an EU-wide arms embargo against Riyadh given the “disastrous humanitarian situation” as a result of “Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen” (EP resolution of 25 February 2016 on the humanitarian situation in Yemen (2016/2515(RSP)). Moreover, it should commit all regional actors to provide reconstruction efforts if and when hostilities in both Syria and Yemen come to a halt.
Finally, proving the EU’s actorness should obviously not be an end in itself; rather, it follows from decisive action based on its main interests. In this sense, it has more to do with credibility and consistency than with the fleeting category of success.
First and foremost, the EU would gain credibility by preserving the nuclear deal, the agreement it helped to broker over a twelve-year long negotiation period. While acknowledging that Iran has hitherto fulfilled its JCPOA-related obligations as per IAEA approval, the EU should not shy away from confronting the country on any issue that it deems important. It was the compartmentalisation of issues that allowed the talks to proceed on the nuclear file when others—like regional security and human rights—were excluded from the negotiations. Similarly, it now has to be possible to address the regional missile threat or Iran’s treatment of its own citizen all while maintaining collaboration on the JCPOA.
Similarly, the EU should compartmentalise its approach to the United States: Finding possible agreements over shared concerns while staunchly defending the nuclear deal itself. A (re-)commitment from Washington to the deal should be the prerequisite for any joint transatlantic action on other issues. To achieve this, the EU should continue the structured dialogue with the US until the May 12 deadline, despite reports that President Trump has already made up his mind and will tear up the deal.
Past experience has shown that this U.S. president is malleable to certain arguments. Two important state visits by European leaders, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Emmanuel Macron of France, at the end of April should drive home Europe’s resolve to maintain the deal. Others, like Prime Minister Theresa May of the United Kingdom and EU High Representative Federica Mogherini—Europe’s 4 Ms—should chime it at their respective level to convince the U.S. leadership of the importance of the JCPOA to Europe’s—as well as Israel’s— security interests. In this regards, it is important to note that the United States is more than its president: Europeans should reach out to administration officials, congressional representatives, and state leaders alike. After all, this is what strong transatlantic bonds are for.
Without escalation, but with a firm response, the EU needs to stand its ground on this key issue, which touches on the vexed question of security in the Middle East and on global nonproliferation norms as much as it does on the transatlantic alliance itself that is crucial to most EU member states’ security. It is therefore high time for the Europeans to internally explore how far they are willing to go.
Should the United States reissue sanctions and thus violate the JCPOA, the EU should use all conflict resolution mechanisms provided by JCPOA, including the Joint Commission complaints procedure in case one party alleges a breach of the agreement by another. It should also work through the United Nations, in particular with China and Russia as the other co-signatories of the JCPOA and permanent members of the UN Security Council. This could, possibly, include to involve the UN’s General Assembly, in case the Security Council is unable to resolve the issue due to a veto from one of its members.
In the end, all these efforts may still fail. Yet actorness does not equal success (if it did, the United States would not be regarded as an actor on many foreign policy issues). Instead, it requires a cohesive policy approach, built on identifiable interests and applying the appropriate instruments. This will bring the recognition by others that the EU as a one-of-a-kind institution desires more than most established states.
But by vigorously pursuing its first two goals, the EU at least stands a chance of preserving the nuclear deal and preventing another Middle East war, just as it did in 2003.