Iran's resumption of enrichment puts EU in a dilemma

Iran's resumption of enrichment puts EU in a dilemma
A previous EU-Iran meeting in Teheran. © European Union, 2015

After the unilateral withdrawal by the American administration from the nuclear deal with Iran and the reimposing of crippling sanctions on the country, including on its vital oil export, the EU has been doing all in its power to preserve the deal that once was greeted as historic and still is considered by the EU as a crucial agreement for regional and global security.

In the deal, the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA), Iran reaffirmed that it under no circumstances would ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons.

Successful implementation of the JCPoA would enable Iran to fully enjoy its right to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes and its nuclear programme would be treated in the same manner as that of any other non-nuclear-weapon state party to the no-proliferation treaty (NPT).

Under the deal, Iran committed to keep its uranium stockpile under 300 kg and up to 3.67%. In beginning of May, however, Iran announced that it might resume stockpiling and enriching uranium and on Sunday it stated that it had started resuming forbidden activities.

An amount of 1,050 of enriched uranium is sufficient for building one nuclear bomb. From an enrichment level of 20%, as was the case before the deal, it does not take much time to reach the 90 % required for a bomb.

Iran also committed to redesign and rebuild its heavy water research reactor. All spent fuel from the reactor would be shipped out of Iran. On Sunday Iran announced that the reactor would resume its activities.

EU statements

EU has called on Iran to comply by the deal despite the American withdrawal and put it as a condition for Europe keeping its side of the bargain, cancelling sanctions and developing trade with Iran. In face of Iranian violations of the deal, Europe can hardly keep silent. It finds itself in a dilemma, between two opposite objectives: preserving the deal or sanctioning Iran for its violations of it.

The technical meeting in Vienna on 28 June, attended by the European External Action Service (EEAS) and all signatories of the deal besides the US (China, France, Germany, Russia, United Kingdom and Iran) to discuss the continued implementation of the JCPoA, has already been overshadowed by the new events.

The only concrete result from the meeting was the announcement that the paying mechanism (INSTEX) has finally been made operational and available to all EU Member States and that the first transactions are being processed. The participants noted prematurely “good progress among others on the modernisation of the Arak research reactor”.

At press briefings in Brussels this week, the EEAS spokesperson said that the EU was extremely concerned by the Iranian measures and for not heeding its calls to comply with the deal. Normally EU would await information from the International Atomic Energy Agency IAEA) which monitors the implementation of the JCPoA

In fact, IAEA has already stated that Iran has exceeded the 300 kg limit, as was confirmed by the spokesperson and in a statement by EU/E3 yesterday. “Iran has stated that it wants to remain within the JCPoA. It must act accordingly by reversing these activities and returning to full JCPoA compliance without delay.”

Calculated initiative

Andrea Dessi, a senior fellow at the Italian think-tank Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) and co-author of a recent report on EU-Iranian relations, told The Brussels Times that the Iranian moves amount to a carefully calculated and gradual strategy aimed at regaining the initiative vis-a-vis the US and ongoing tensions surrounding the JCPoA.

“These moves were widely anticipated and warnings to this effect had been made previously. They aim to increase pressure on Europe and the other signatory parties to the JCPOA (Russia and China) and provide Iran with sanctions relief, particularly as regards oil exports.

He added that this puts the EU in a dilemma, but arguably it has been facing this dilemma since May 2018, when the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the JCPoA and embarked on a policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran - the root causes of the present crisis. The difference now is that Iran is taking the initiative.

“This is an effort to acquire leverage in the face of US economic warfare against Iran. Moreover, Iran will never negotiate from a position of weakness and is consequently seeking to consolidate its position. Yet, the possibility of an error or miscalculation is what is most worrying,” explains Dessi.

Iran has warned that next steps will be even more serious as regards the future of the JCPoA. Europe is watching closely, but there is an urgent need for concrete measures in the energy and economic domain. The EU has much at stake in the preservation of the JCPoA but needs to add teeth to its policy and show political courage and leadership, he concludes.

M. Apelblat

The Brussels Times

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