In a sudden move, France, Germany and the United Kingdom (E3) requested the EU to invoke the conflict resolution mechanism in the nuclear deal with Iran.
Whether it will result in a diplomatic dialogue to address implementation issues or lead to the undoing of the deal remains to be seen.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a statement today afternoon in Strasbourg that he had received a letter from the foreign ministers of the E3 and as coordinator of the so-called Joint Commission of the nuclear deal (JCPoA) had no choice but to trigger the mechanism.
Borrell did not add anything to the read-out of the E3-letter and did not take any questions from journalists. But he underlined that the objective of triggering the mechanism was not to reimpose any sanctions but to resolve issues in the implementation of the JCPoA and he hoped for a constructive diplomatic dialogue.
The Joint Commission was established to carry out a number of review functions and is comprised of representatives of Iran and the other signatories to the deal (EU/E3, the US, Russia and China), with Borrell as coordinator. It meets on a quarterly basis and at any time upon request of any JCPoA participant.
If Iran or any other signatories believed that the other side was not meeting its commitments, it could refer the issue to the Joint Commission for resolution. The previous EU policy chief Federica Mogherini, who was instrumental in bringing about the deal, was reluctant to trigger the mechanism which she claimed only could be done in case of “significant non-compliance”.
The decision comes as a surprise, following the foreign affairs council last week (10 January), which was all about finding ways to de-escalate the situation and preserving the nuclear deal (JCPoA). It runs also against EU’s official policy to await the monitoring reports from the international atomic energy agency on Iran’s compliance with the deal before taking any decision.
Why the EU decided to invoke the mechanism is therefore not clear but has to do with Iran’s recent announcement that it is no longer bound of its commitments in the deal following the Trump administration’s unilateral cancellation of it and its imposing of sanctions against Iran.
It their letter, the E3 write that “Iran has continued to break key restrictions set out in the JCPoA. Iran’s actions are inconsistent with the provisions of the nuclear agreement and have increasingly severe and non-reversible proliferation implications. We do not accept the argument that Iran is entitled to reduce compliance with the JCPoA.”
Although it was difficult to gauge where exactly Iran was going as regards its commitments under the agreement, the prevailing opinion among experts was that Iran would wait until the US presidential elections in November before taking any irreversible steps, such as stepping up enriching uranium to the 20 % level and reducing the breakout time to build a nuclear weapon.
By chance, the Israeli military intelligence was reported today that it estimates that Iran will have 40 kg of uranium enriched to the 90% level by the end of 2020 – enough for one nuclear weapon – but no missile to carry the warhead.
Today’s decision surprised also Robert Malley, president and CEO of the International Crisis Group and a former special assistant for the Middle East under president Obama. At a briefing on Tuesday morning (14 January) in the Press Club Brussels, he analysed the latest development in US-EU-Iran relations.
“The only constant has been the continuing degradation of relations with Iran,” he summarized. “The Iranian regime is under pressure, also internally, but I don’t think that it will lead to a serious crisis. The question is if they will take a time out or are planning a new response to the killing of Suleimani. The story is still being written. The Iranian revenge for the killing hasn’t been consummated.”
The Europeans on their part are playing a balancing act and do not want to antagonize either part, he explained. “If they want to achieve sanction relief in exchange for a change in Iran’s behaviour, they haven’t been very successful so far. From the US perspective, the sanctions are working. EU is not in a position to broker a deal.”
Next step was to invoke the dispute resolution mechanism, Malley predicted, but the decision came earlier than he thought. In his view it could be a first step to more sanctions against Iran and at best a way to open up space for addressing the complaints of both sides. “If Iran won’t get sanction relief, the JCPoA will unravel.”
Asked by The Brussels Times about the reasons for triggering the conflict resolution mechanism now, he admitted that he felt puzzled. Basically, he thought that it was a mistake to invoke the mechanism. EU risks of not being seen as an honest broker between the US and Iran if that was the purpose with EU’s manoeuvring until now.
“The purpose of such a step is to pressure Iran but it could backfire. Once you invoke the mechanism, a clock starts ticking and the message to Iran is that they have acted in bad faith. Since the US walked away from the deal, you need a political solution to the problem.”
The JCPoA did reduce Iran’s nuclear capacity and the risk of Iran producing a nuclear weapon in the short- and medium-term period. After that the Iranian commitments expire (sunset clauses).
The deal was also limited to the nuclear issue. Any concerns about Iran’s destabilizing role in the region, its support to terrorist organizations and threats against Israel were absent from the deal. The hope was that the agreement would pave the way for a normalization of relations between Iran and the rest of the world.
But Malley did not think that Trump intended to negotiate a better deal that would address the shortcomings in the JCPoA.
“Trump’s key goal is to stir unrest in Iran so that the regime falls,” he said. “Trump has also a tendency to unravel everything that his predecessor Obama did. I don’t know if Iran is on the ropes. What we know is that there is no relation between Iran’s economic health and its behaviour. If US’s goal was to contain Iran, the opposite has happened.”