Britain, France and Germany, the three European signatories of the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), have activated the agreement's dispute mechanism in an effort to force Tehran into compliance with its commitment to curb its nuclear program.
The three European countries — also known as the E3 — triggered the so-called Dispute Resolution Mechanism (DRM) on January 14, a week after Iranian authorities announced that they would no longer be bound by any of the agreement's restrictions in terms of the numbers or type of centrifuges that they can operate or the level of uranium enrichment that they can pursue.
The DRM (Paragraphs 36 and 37 of the JCPOA) starts the clock on a process that could result in the return of international sanctions on Iran. The deal's signatories now have up to 30 days to resolve their differences, although that time period can be extended by consensus. If the dispute cannot be solved, the matter could be brought before the UN Security Council and could result in the re-imposition of sanctions that had been lifted under the deal. That effort, however, could also easily be blocked by a Chinese or Russian veto.
Iranian authorities said that they were justified in violating the deal because the United States broke the July 2015 agreement by withdrawing in May 2018. In a statement, the E3 foreign ministers rejected Tehran's argument:
"We do not accept the argument that Iran is entitled to reduce compliance with the JCPOA. Contrary to its statements, Iran has never triggered the JCPOA Dispute Resolution Mechanism and has no legal grounds to cease implementing the provisions of the agreement."
The E3 stressed that their objective was to save the JCPOA:
"We do this in good faith with the overarching objective of preserving the JCPOA and in the sincere hope of finding a way forward to resolve the impasse through constructive diplomatic dialogue, while preserving the agreement and remaining within its framework. In doing so, our 3 countries are not joining a campaign to implement maximum pressure against Iran. Our hope is to bring Iran back into full compliance with its commitments under the JCPOA."
Reactions to the E3's decision to activate the DRM have been mixed. Some analysts argue that the E3's move will bring Tehran back into compliance and thereby save the JCPOA. Others believe that the decision brings the JCPOA closer to collapse and the possible, if improbable, return of UN sanctions. Regardless of what happens, short of the threat of regime change, Iranian authorities are unlikely to abandon their nuclear ambitions. Following is a selection of transatlantic commentary and analysis about the future of the nuclear deal with Iran:
Addressing the British Parliament, Britain's First Secretary of State and Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Dominic Raab, said:
"Let me set out the pattern of non-compliance by the regime that left us with no credible alternative. Since last May, Iran has step by step reduced its compliance with critical elements of the JCPOA, leaving it a shell of an agreement. On July 1, 2019, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iran had exceeded key limits on low enriched uranium stockpile limits. On July 8, the IAEA reported that Iran had exceeded its 3.67% enriched uranium production limit. On November 5, the IAEA confirmed that Iran had crossed its advanced centrifuge research and development limits. On November 7, the IAEA confirmed that Iran had restarted enrichment activities at the Fordow facility — a clear violation of JCPOA restrictions. On November 18, the IAEA reported that Iran had exceeded its heavy water limits. On January 5 this year, Iran announced that it would no longer adhere to JCPOA limits on centrifuge numbers.
"Each of those actions was serious. Together, they now raise acute concerns about Iran's nuclear ambitions. Iran's breakout time — the time that it would need to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon — is now falling, which is an international concern. Time and time again, we have expressed our serious concerns to Iran and urged it to come back into compliance. Time and time again, in its statements and more importantly through its actions, it has refused, undermining the very integrity of the deal and flouting its international commitments."
Writing for the Washington Examiner, columnist Tom Rogan noted that by triggering the DRM, the European Union had admitted that the Iran deal, in its current incarnation, is dead:
"The European Union's big three have awoken from their slumber to recognize that the 2015 Iran nuclear accord is dying. Britain, France, and Germany made this admission Tuesday by triggering a dispute mechanism within that accord.... It's unlikely that the parties will be able to reach a serious resolution, and the EU knows it.... This is a pretty remarkable policy shift on the nuclear agreement.
"Up until now, Western Europe's three big powers had insisted that they were fully committed to the deal. Rather than respond to Iran's breaches of the agreement with punitive responses, the EU tried to find ways to provide Tehran with increased sanctions relief.
"So, what changed all of a sudden? Put simply, the European powers have now recognized two obvious truths. First, U.S. sanctions against Iran have been effectively deterring European businesses from making investments in Iran for fear of losing access to the U.S. economy.... Second, Iran's breaches of the agreement pose an intolerable threat to international security. Iran's ongoing crackdown against its own people also gives the EU domestic cover to act more forcefully....
"Next, Trump should continue to dangle the carrot, offering sanctions relief in return for an agreement from Iran concerning restrictions on its ballistic missile program, more intrusive inspections, and an open-ended compliance timeline. That approach would generate a deal worth signing — one that the EU would get behind."
The Editorial Board of the Wall Street Journal agreed:
"For months Iran has been violating the 2015 nuclear deal while promising to comply again if President Trump abandons his 'maximum pressure' campaign. Germany, France and the UK have criticized Tehran and Washington while trying to save the accord, but on Tuesday the Europeans took a major step toward finally siding with the U.S....
"The conventional wisdom has been that Iran is slowly escalating, and Europe isn't pushing back hard, in case Mr. Trump isn't re-elected and a Democratic President returns to the nuclear deal. The latest move is Europe's most significant because it seems the Continent may not be able to wait out Mr. Trump....
"It's unlikely the formal mechanism will resolve anything, as Iran has ignored European requests to return to compliance in the past. The better option would be to join the American sanctions campaign. This may have seemed unthinkable a year ago, but European unity is showing more signs of stress....
"Tehran's rulers are more politically vulnerable now than at any time since the 2009 protests over stolen elections."
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas tweeted that the E3's objective was to preserve the JCPOA:
"Our goal is clear: we want to preserve the agreement and come to a diplomatic solution within the agreement."
In what would appear to signal a rupture of European unity regarding efforts to preserve the JCPOA, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that he is open to replacing the existing deal with a new agreement negotiated by U.S. President Donald J. Trump. In a January 14 interview with the BBC, Johnson said:
"If we're going to get rid of it, let's replace it, and let's replace it with the Trump deal — that's what we need to see. I think that would be a great way forward.... Let's work together to replace the JCPOA and get the Trump deal instead."
Writing for the European Leadership Network, Tarja Cronberg, a member of its executive board, admitted:
"The end result of the DRM...will most likely be the final collapse of the deal. Where will this leave Europe?... Twelve years of coordinating the superpowers in negotiations to ensure that Iran will not acquire nuclear weapons will be lost."
Alexander Sarovic, political editor of the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, agreed:
"The Europeans are being made aware of their impotence.... The attempt to enable European companies to trade with Iran bypassing the US sanctions, among other things by founding the Instex special purpose vehicle, has failed. European banks refused to do business with Iran."
Analyst Richard Goldberg, a former member of the U.S. National Security Council, wrote:
"That Iran is able to breach its JCPOA nuclear limits — enriching uranium above 3.67%, increasing its low enriched uranium stockpile, testing advanced centrifuges, restarting enrichment at Fordow & increasing its heavy water stockpile — tells us how horrible the JCPOA was.
"Leaving Iran with turnkey nuclear capabilities ready to emerge at any moment to threaten international peace and security was a fatal mistake of the JCPOA. The sunsets were pouring lemon juice on an open cut, as if the deal couldn't have gotten worse but did.
"Maximum pressure backed by a credible military deterrent remains the only way to force this regime to permanently dismantle all its enrichment & reprocessing related capabilities....
"Why did the E3 wait since June 2019 to start a process to push Iran back inside its nuclear commitments or else end its precious sunsets? Weakness, appeasement, personal investments in JCPOA and an initial belief that Iran would outlast Trump. They were wrong and look feckless....
"The JCPOA echo chamber, like Iran itself, is freaking out. They know this is the beginning of the end of the worst deal in history."
Meanwhile, Israeli military intelligence estimated that Iran could have enough enriched uranium to produce one nuclear bomb by the end of 2020.
Writing for Tablet magazine, author Lee Smith explained the original purpose of the JCPOA:
"Trump has distinguished himself from his predecessor. The world's most famous dealmaker appears not to be angling for a deal, and for good reason — there's no deal to be had because there's nothing left to negotiate. [Former U.S. President Barack] Obama set it up that way. The JCPOA guaranteed that the Iranians would all but have a bomb within 10 years — or by the end of the second term of Obama's successor....
"The point of the deal was not to stop Iran from ever building a bomb but to prevent the Iranians from doing so until Obama left office.
"The Obama administration went to extravagant lengths to hide the obvious, hidden in plain sight. It's all spelled out in the JCPOA's so-called 'sunset' clauses, the restrictions on the nuclear program that were designed to evaporate after Obama moved into private life....
"Now three years after Obama left the White House, it's clear why the former president's party is worried about the fate of his signature foreign policy initiative. By killing the Iranian commander [Qassem Soleimani] Obama officials were sending messages to, Trump has shown his fiercest critics to be right — he's nothing like Obama.
In an interview with the German newspaper Bild, Iranian exile Mina Ahadi, Chairwoman of the Central Council of Ex-Muslims in Germany, summed it up:
"The nuclear deal with Iran is over — it failed. You cannot and must not continue to negotiate with the Islamic regime, you cannot trust it. Such talks are useless. Governments should stop defending the regime through such talks, keeping it alive. If nothing changes, relations with the regime have to be broken off completely."