For more than a decade following the 2003 revelation that Iran had surreptitiously built a uranium conversion facility and an enrichment plant, the European leaders have expended enormous effort and political capital to find ways through sanctions pressure and off-and-on diplomacy, to rein in Iran’s nuclear weapons potential.
In July 2015, after more than two years of sustained negotiations, they were successful. Diplomats from the European Union, Germany and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council concluded a detailed, 156-page agreement with Iran designed to block all its potential pathways to the bomb.
The deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) verifiably reduced Iran’s nuclear capacity and put in place a very robust International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring system to detect and deter cheating that can block Iran’s potential pathways to a bomb for 15 years or more – all in exchange for relief from all nuclear-related sanctions against Iran. So far, Iran has met all of its JCPOA obligations.
But now, US president Donald Trump has, against the advice of the United States closest allies and many in his own party, chosen to pull the United States out of the nuclear deal. On May 8, he ordered the US Treasury Department to take steps to reimpose sanctions on Iran and any businesses or banks that continue to do business with Iran.
Worse still, Trump and his national security advisor John Bolton—who has called for bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities—have no viable alternative strategy.
Trump’s actions, which are an unjustified violation of the JCPOA, put the valuable nonproliferation barriers on Iran’s nuclear program that were secured through European diplomatic leadership at grave risk.
Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani said that “if necessary, we can begin our industrial enrichment without any limitations. Until implementation of this decision, we will wait for some weeks and will talk with our friends and allies and other signatories of the nuclear deal, who signed it and who will remain loyal to it. Everything depends on our national interests.”
If the JCPOA is to survive Trump’s reckless actions, European Union governments and other responsible states must now plan to pursue the implementation of the JCPOA without the United States and take proactive steps to ensure that it remains in Iran’s interest not to break out of the JCPOA’s rigorous constraints
Next steps for Europe
Trump may have wounded the JCPOA, but as French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on 8 May , the deal ‘is not dead’. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini has also argued that the JCPOA is multilateral accord and it is “not up to a single country to terminate it.”
What can, and what should, European leaders do?
Beginning with a planned meeting on 14 May of foreign ministers from the E3 group of France, Germany and the UK, plus China and Russia, they will need to quickly develop a common strategy insulate their financial and business transactions with Iran from threatened US sanctions.
They should agree to adopt EU regulations to block the application of US secondary sanctions on their banks and business engaging in legitimate trade with Iran and seek to assure Iran that they remain committed to Iran realizing sanctions relief under the deal. Such an approach was adopted under a 1996 EU blocking regulation, which was established in response to earlier U.S. sanctions on Iran, Cuba, and Libya. The regulations prohibit EU entities and courts from complying with certain sanctions laws that are not consistent with EU policy.
At the upcoming European Council meeting on 17 May in Sofia, European leaders should also collectively condemn the US decision to violate the JCPOA and reject further talks with the Trump administration on a common approach on Iran policy until and unless U.S. officials agree to relax enforcement of US secondary sanctions targeting European companies doing business with Iran.
Many, if not most, of the large European companies and banks that do significant business with the United States will likely not be assured by these measures due to the threat of US sanctions. But the blocking regulations can provide sufficient protection for small- and medium-sized companies in Europe and Asia that have little or no exposure to US markets or the US banking system because they could continue conducting business in Iran in non-dollar currencies.
European leaders will need to outline their plan for sustaining the JCPOA and why it continues to serve Iran’s interest. A critical element will be to sustain continued oil exports from Iran to Europe in cooperation with Russia and China and other major purchasers.
Such an approach requires strong leadership from the E3 and the strong support of the European Union’s other member states. Given the Trump administration’s rejection of yet another effective, multilateral accord, it is time for European leaders to recognise that trying to appease Mr Trump does not work and that they must, for now, part ways with Washington on this vital global security issue.
There is no American “Plan B”
Europe has little choice but to part ways with the Trump administration because Trump has rejected reasonable proposals from the E3 leaders to address his concerns about the JCPOA, and his new ‘strategy’ to pursue a ‘better deal’ to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran is pure fantasy.
To try to address Trump’s complaints about the JCPOA, the E3 worked in good faith for several months to negotiate a supplemental agreement designed to address additional concerns about Iran’s behavior that fall outside the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal, including its ballistic missile program and its support for radical groups in the Middle East.
That effort failed, however, because Mr Trump stubbornly refused to guarantee to the E3 that if they entered into such an agreement, he would respect US commitments to continue to waive sanctions against Iran so long as they meet their obligations.
Trump also demanded that the Europeans join the United States to try to impose certain time-limited nuclear restrictions of the JCPOA on Iran for an indefinite period of time, under the threat of renewed sanctions. Europe’s leaders justifiably rejected that proposal as an attempt to unilaterally renegotiate the original terms of the 2015 agreement.
Now, despite having violated the JCPOA, Trump officials say they will try to ‘cajole’ the European powers and other states to re-impose even stronger sanctions on Iran to try to compel Iran to come back to the negotiating table to work out a ‘better’ deal for the United States and a more onerous one for Iran.
In the meantime, Trump is demanding that Iran must still meet the JCPOA’s nuclear restrictions and submit to its tough IAEA monitoring provisions. Asked on 9 May how he would respond if Tehran restarted its nuclear efforts, Trump said “If they do, there will be very severe consequences.”
Such arrogant bullying has no chance of producing a cooperative response from leaders in Tehran or in other capitals.
What is at stake
If, in the coming weeks, European and other powers fail to insulate their financial and business transactions with Iran from threatened US sanctions, how quickly could it scale up its nuclear program?
Iran now has 5,060 installed IR-1 centrifuge machines and a relatively small amount of low-enriched uranium. Iran could, within weeks, begin enriching the material to higher levels (to 20 per cent U-235), but it would still take at least 12 months to amass enough uranium enriched to bomb-grade for just one nuclear device.
Iran could also possibly reopen the Fordow underground enrichment complex, which was shuttered under the JCPOA, and put back online an additional 1,000 IR-1 machines that were idled under the JCPOA.
Iran’s centrifuge-based nuclear infrastructure could be further augmented with the redeployment of about 1,000 more advanced IR-2M centrifuges, which were put into monitored storage under the JCPOA.
Since these are two to three times more efficient than the IR-1s, the addition of the IR-2Ms would reduce the time necessary to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for one bomb to two to three months.
With the existing IAEA monitoring system in place, all of these steps would be promptly detected, but within some 12-18 months of exceeding key JCPOA limits, Iran could have a vastly shorter ‘breakout’ timeline.
‘Breakout’ calculations must take into account the fact that that before 2004, Iran engaged in an organised program of experiments useful for the development and design of nuclear weapons.
US intelligence authorities and the IAEA report that these activities are no longer underway, but it is prudent to assume that Iran has the know-how to assemble a nuclear device.
Iranian engineers and scientists would likely need at least a year to assemble a workable nuclear device and perfect a ballistic missile system to deliver it, but again, they have the know-how to get there if they are given orders to do so.
These realities underscore why it is critical to maintain the JCPOA’s nuclear restrictions and tougher IAEA monitoring to ensure that Iran cannot, in the near-term, acquire the capacity to quickly produce enough bomb-grade nuclear material for even one weapon.
Only by preserving the JCPOA do we have the option to negotiate a follow-on agreement with Iran and other states in the region that maintains the core barriers of the 2015 nuclear deal.
If Iran’s leaders decide to exceed the tough nuclear restrictions established by the accord. a new crisis could soon emerge in the troubled Middle East region that leads to a nuclear arms race, military conflict, or both.
Within hours of Trump’s announcement, Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir said: “If Iran acquires nuclear capability we will do everything we can to do the same.”
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said in a statement on 8 May that: “As long as Iran continues to implement its nuclear related commitments, as it is doing so far, the European Union will remain committed to the continued full and effective implementation of the nuclear deal.”
Whether the hard-won 2015 Iran nuclear deal survives will depend largely on the leadership of key European leaders. Now is their time to step forward.