Cornelius Adebahr Nonresident Fellow at Carnegie Europe
The 2015 agreement on Iran’s nuclear program can of course be saved, and all parties know what it would take: Iran maintaining the nuclear limits imposed on it by the deal, and China, the EU, and Russia providing meaningful trade. It’s just hard—maybe too hard—to do so, not only for the Europeans, but also for the non-Western signatories. That is why events are going in a direction that is in neither side’s rational interest but that appears preferable to making a hard and painful decision.
If Tehran violates the agreement’s restrictions on stockpiles or, worse, the level of enrichment, the Europeans will use the deal’s complaint procedure before jumping to sanctions—to underline that the agreement is still in place and to buy more time. With messages from Washington oscillating between requests to “call me” and threats of “the official end of Iran,” U.S. Iran policy is too confused not to bank on some change—including in personnel—that may give everyone more breathing space.
The problem is that such a reactive approach does not prepare the EU and its member states to act if and when things go south. Now is the time to change the crisis dynamic by proposing a European initiative to support the establishment of a regional dialogue to first discern and then respect all parties’ legitimate security interests.
Jarrett Blanc Senior Fellow in the Geoeconomics and Strategy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Yes—for now. The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between Iran and seven other signatories has shown surprising resilience. A year ago, I called the deal dead, arguing that the most hopeful scenario was the renegotiation of a rump bargain with reduced benefits. But Iran has remained compliant for more than a year since the United States withdrew in May 2018 and began a campaign of maximum pressure, depriving Tehran of all the economic benefits of the deal and then some.
That resilience is unlikely to last much longer. Regional tensions are escalating quickly, and Iran has threatened to stop abiding by some of the deal’s limitations in a matter of days. It may still be possible to salvage a version of the deal, though, if China, Russia, and Europe consider it a sufficient priority. If China resumes something like normal oil purchases and Europe makes a few political gestures to show that governments, at least, are willing and able to defy U.S. sanctions threats, it may be in Iran’s interests to lower the temperature.
This would not be a sustainable equilibrium. Iran would still be worse off than it was before the JCPOA and so unlikely to abide for long. Yet, with U.S. President Donald Trump showing signs of discomfort with his more hawkish advisers and Democratic candidates pledging to return to the JCPOA if Iran complies, it might buy enough time for Iran and the United States to return to serious diplomacy.
Luigi Scazzieri Research Fellow at the Centre for European Reform
Probably not. Iran has warned it will violate the deal by the end of June unless the EU, Russia, and China deliver on their pledge to provide relief from U.S. sanctions. A last-minute rescue is unlikely. The so-called special-purpose vehicle set up by France, Germany, and the UK to skirt U.S. sanctions is not yet working. Even if it were made operational, its practical impact would be marginal because it would not cover oil sales and may itself be sanctioned by the United States.
Meanwhile, there is little sign that China and Russia are poised to take steps that could change Iranian calculations, such as enabling oil exports. For Tehran, violating the deal is a way of gaining leverage to use in future talks. Because Iran is already facing U.S. sanctions, the prospect of additional international measures if it violates the deal is unlikely to alter Tehran’s calculations. If the deal collapses, it is possible to imagine fresh negotiations, eventually leading to a revitalized agreement.
Much depends on the degree to which Iran ramps up its nuclear activities: minor steps could leave the door open for negotiations, but major ones are likely to precipitate a further escalation in regional tensions.
Shimon Stein Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies
Despite the flaws in the nuclear deal, Trump’s decision to withdraw was a mistake. To salvage the agreement means having the United States back on board. That is unlikely to happen for at least as long as Trump is president. The efforts by the EU3—France, Germany, and the UK—to salvage the deal are unlikely to compensate for the U.S. determination to strangle Iran economically and financially, which appears to be so successful that sitting it out until the end of Trump’s presidency—assuming he will be a one-term president—doesn’t seem to be an option for Iran. Russia and China are also unable to salvage the deal.
Against that backdrop, and in an attempt to raise the stakes for the international community and change the U.S. position, Iran is engaged—directly and through its proxies—in measures that might, through miscalculation, lead to a military escalation with unintended consequences.
What should be done? First, because direct engagement between the United States and Iran is impossible, a third party should serve as a go-between with the objective of de-escalation. If successful, it should pave the way for negotiations on a revised JCPOA. There is no going back to the original agreement.
Paul Taylor Contributing Editor at Politico
The United States, which tore up the Iran deal, doesn’t want to salvage it; and the EU doesn’t have the power, or the guts, to keep it going in defiance of Washington. European corporations have voted with their feet and left Iran. The EU’s alternative trade-finance channel is going nowhere.
In Iran, hardliners are in the ascendancy, whether or not Tehran was behind the attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman on June 13. The hardliners never believed in the rewards promised to Iran for accepting constraints on its nuclear program, and they were right. Moreover, some of them profit, ideologically and financially, from a siege economy. Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates are all goading America toward war.
The only slender hope is that Trump doesn’t want to become entangled in another Middle Eastern war. He may have an interest in stopping short of confrontation. I doubt the Europeans have cards to play to achieve that. But perhaps Russia or China, which have influence and interests in Tehran, can broker a way out—if they see an interest. Don’t hold your breath.