The possibility of resuming negotiations with Iran on reviving the nuclear deal that the Trump administration unilaterally cancelled has become a priority for the new American administration. The EU which unsuccessfully tried to preserve the deal has entered into the picture without any clear plan.
Asked by The Brussels Times about EU’s options, Peter Stano, lead spokesperson for EU’s external affairs, replied yesterday (1 February) that EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has contacted the new US of State Antony Blinken and referred to his declaration of 11 January of behalf of the EU.
In the statement, EU confirmed that the initiation of uranium enrichment to up to 20% by Iran at the underground Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant, which was confirmed by the IAEA a week earlier, is a very serious development and a matter of deep concern. EU also welcomed President Biden’s positive statements on the nuclear deal (JCPoA) and looks forward to working with the administration.
In fact, Blinken himself noted in an interview on Monday that Iran could be only weeks away from producing enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon if it continues to breach the constraints in the deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – JCPoA).
EU’s coordinating role
The Commission spokesperson declined to elaborate on EU’s options – renewing the nuclear as it was, improving it by addressing the loopholes in it and addressing Iran’s missiles programme and its destabilizing activities in the region that were left outside the agreement. He added, however, that EUs role is limited to that of a coordinator of the existing agreement.
“Any decision to change or amend the agreement is not up to the EU but to the parties to it,” he said, referring to the US, Iran, Russia, United Kingdom, China and two EU member states (France and Germany).
“The right forum for the negotiations is the Joint Committee as set up in the agreement.” The order of priorities is to bring the parties back to full compliance with the agreement and only after that to deal with the regional issues.
The mistrust between the parties is high and both the US and Iran want the other side to act first. The US expects Iran to fulfil its commitments under the agreement and roll back its enrichment of uranium while Iran expects the US to lift the sanctions imposed by the Trump administration.
Where the EU stands in this is unclear, in particular since it never has recognized the loopholes in the agreement such as its 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 back in 2015 was that the agreement would pave the way for a normalization of relations between Iran and the rest of the world.
New American envoy
An important role in any future negotiations will be played by Rob Malley, who has been appointed as the US administration’s special envoy for Iran. Malley, who was a negotiator in the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, has also served as president of the International Crisis Group with headquarters in Brussels. A year ago, he participated in a briefing in Press Club Brussels and analysed the US-EU-Iran relations.
“The Europeans on their part are playing a balancing act and do not want to antagonize either part,” he explained then. “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.”
He admitted that, “If Iran won’t get sanction relief, the JCPoA will unravel.” 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.”
No doubt, the negotiators on all sides are facing a huge challenge in salvaging the nuclear deal and avoiding a dangerous nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
The Brussels Times