On March 5, after discussions with his French counterpart, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted:
EU should compel US to abide by JCPOA rather than trying to appease it by repeating its extraneous demands…US and EU should stop pouring…weapons into our region instead of questioning Iran’s missiles…Iran has always been ready to work for peace in the region, but with serious partners…not engaged in appeasement gimmicks.
Zarif’s irritation is understandable. It must seem to him that France, Britain, and Germany (known as the E3) are embarked on a fool’s errand. There is no reason to think that their proposal to impose EU sanctions on Iranians involved in Iran’s missile program and supporting the Syrian government can satisfy President Donald Trump, least of all now that he is flanked by two Iran hawks, Mike Pompeo and John Bolton. The E3 proposal does not come close to meeting President Trump’s demand that “flaws” in the JCPOA be “fixed.” And, according to an Axios report dated March 13, “President Trump told Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in their meeting at the White House [on 5 March] that he won’t show flexibility in the negotiations with France, Germany and the U.K. on amending the Iran nuclear deal.”
It must also seem to Zarif that the E3 are betraying the spirit of the JCPOA. After all, the E3 are proposing to punish one of the parties (Iran) that has complied fully with its JCPOA obligations by imposing sanctions to placate a party (the United States) that is in breach of its JCPOA obligations.
What is unclear, however, at least to this observer, is whether it has occurred to Zarif to undermine the E3 case for sanctions by offering the EU an assurance that Iran will stay true to the JCPOA as long as Europe, Russia, and China also stay true. Instead, Iranian signalling on this question has been ambiguous. On February 17, President Hassan Rouhani “asserted that his country will adhere to the terms of the nuclear deal…till ‘the last breath…We as a country have always adhered (to commitments). We will not violate it (the pact) and will stay on board. It is the order of God.’”
But on February 22, one of Zarif’s deputies, Abbas Araghchi, told a BBC interviewer:
We are not convinced that the deal can survive without the US. It is up to the other participants of the JCPOA to show and to convince Iranians that they can deliver JCPOA even without the US. This is not our understanding for the time being. If the US is out, we would also actually go out because there is no deal anymore.
It must be galling—as well as a source of domestic political difficulty—for Zarif and President Rouhani that Iran is not receiving the full measure of economic benefits that they expected when they concluded the JCPOA. But the JCPOA was and is about much more than sanctions, trade, and investment. The JCPOA enables Iran to reassure not just the West but its non-Western peers that its nuclear intentions are peaceful and legitimate. It normalizes Iran’s standing as a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency, a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and a member of the United Nations. It allows Iran to continue occupying moral high ground vacated by President Trump’s administration. It contributes to Iran enjoying the geopolitical backing of Russia and China, which is especially useful when the White House is in such belligerent hands.
Moreover, even on the trade and investment front, Iran is better off now than it was prior to the JCPOA, US delinquency notwithstanding. Its oil exports have regained pre-oil-sanctions levels. Large Chinese, Japanese, and Korean credits have become available. Peugeot, Renault, and Total are among the European companies that have resumed operations in Iran or announced billion-dollar investments. Iran’s economy grew by 6.5% in 2016-17 and is forecast to have grown at 4.2 % in 2017-18. And ways of mitigating US attempts to deter European investments and Iranian purchases from Europe may yet be found.
Last, there is much to be said, surely, for denying President Trump, and those in Israel and Saudi Arabia whom he seeks to please, the satisfaction of destroying the JCPOA. Thwarting and frustrating these adversaries is something that can be savored.
In short, it seems obvious that Iran shares Europe’s interest in preserving the JCPOA with or without the United States, and in minimizing the adverse consequences of US withdrawal or continued trouble-making. If so, Iran should be making this clear to the EU. That will deny the E3 the argument that Iran must be sanctioned to avert a JCPOA collapse, and it will strengthen the hand of those in the EU who have doubts about the wisdom of the E3’s proposal.
The best outcome to this affair would be for President Trump to be brought to understand that the JCPOA is fit for purpose as a nuclear non-proliferation agreement and, as such, serves US interests. But, if that cannot be done, it is essential that Europe and Iran make common cause of preserving the JCPOA, avoid alienating one another, and deepen their dialogue on issues of concern such as regional missile proliferation.