Britain, Germany and France recently triggered a dispute resolution process over Iran’s retreat from the original commitments of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. As a desperate attempt to save the deal, the European allies are now pressuring Iran by threatening to reimpose U.N. sanctions in an effort to force Iran to comply with the commitments of the deal.
This dispute mechanism follows the recent escalation of tensions between the U.S. and Iran after President Trump ordered the killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, as well as Tehran’s response to abandon the nuclear deal limitations on uranium enrichment. The European allies, key signatories of the nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), are in a difficult position given their interest in preserving the deal with Iran, as well as their interest in preserving an alliance with the United States without presenting Iran as the aggressor.
Between Trump’s brazen abandonment of the deal, Iran’s retreat from its commitments and narrowly avoiding a violent escalation between the two nations, it has become clear that the only way to save the JCPOA is for the EU to act as a mediator in this potentially devastating global conflict. Rather than pushing Iran to comply with the deal under the threat of international sanctions, the European allies must learn from the failure of Trump’s maximum pressure policy and act as a peacemaker to de-escalate tensions and return to the nuclear deal. A confrontational approach by the EU would not save the Iran nuclear deal, but would instead lead to its demise.
Since withdrawing from the multilateral deal in 2018, the Trump administration has ratcheted up tensions with Iran using its aforementioned maximum pressure strategy supported by the former national security advisor John Bolton. This strategy sought to ravage Iran’s economy through imposing sanctions on the oil and banking sector in an effort to bring Iranian officials to renegotiate under a stricter deal. However, this strategy has failed as Iran has refused any new nuclear agreement on U.S. terms and has ceased to follow many commitments of the deal.
Tensions have risen between Washington and Tehran and the attacks by both nations are indicative of the failure of Trump’s strategy of applying maximum pressure. It has only heightened the fear of a war that has the potential to destabilize the entire region resulting in an international game of chicken, with both sides waiting for the other to back down.
Although the intended aim of the dispute resolution process is to tackle Iran’s breaches of the nuclear agreement and to bring them back into full compliance, this approach comes with several risks. The current plan of instating a dispute resolution mechanism is one of the only ways the European allies can engage with Iran without the threat of U.S. sanctions, but resorting to this method risks completely losing the trust of Tehran, who view the European alliance with the U.S. as an attempt to undermine and cripple their nation.
In addition to losing years of diplomatic goodwill, a return of U.N. sanctions would not deter Iran from further rolling back the commitments of the nuclear deal. Evidence of this can be seen by Iran’s response to two years of coercive policy the United States has used against Tehran, which has only led to increased conflict. The European allies must use this dispute mechanism as a means to not only extend the timeframe needed for providing economic relief for the nation, but also to act as a mediator between the U.S.-Iran conflict.
Now that President Trump has backed away from further military action against Tehran following the airstrikes in Iraq, the European allies must take this opportunity to act as peacemakers if there is any chance in saving this deal. Considering Iran had fully complied with the terms of the nuclear agreement even after Trump abandoned the deal and imposed sanctions, Iran still has not left the JCPOA and remains committed to the original deal.
A potential leader during these peace talks is French President Emmanuel Macron, who has proposed opening communication between both nations as recently as last September. By extending the timeframe provided by the dispute mechanism, the best chance Europe has at mediating this conflict is through keeping the deal alive until the 2020 presidential election with hopes that a potential Democratic administration can ease tensions and rejoin the original nuclear agreement.
Despite the slim chances that such a mediation method would work given the internal turmoil within Iran and the chance that Trump would lose reelection, it is still far better than the alternative of killing the JCPOA, abandoning years of diplomacy and accelerating a conflict that everyone has been trying to prevent.