For half a decade, President Donald Trump has railed against the 2015 nuclear deal forged between Iran and other world powers. In the last year of his term, he may finally witness what he has long wanted: The pact’s complete dissolution.
On Tuesday, the three European countries that were signatories to the deal triggered a dispute mechanism within the agreement that now raises the possibility of U.N. sanctions snapping back on the Iranian regime. In a joint statement, the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany expressed their “regret” for having to take this action but said they had “no choice” after Iran announced on Jan. 5 its fifth measure to step away from restrictions on its nuclear energy program.
That Iranian move came after the United States’ targeted strike on Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, a top military commander who spearheaded Iran’s proxy wars in the Middle East. The leadership in Tehran is under serious pressure: American sanctions have enfeebled the Iranian economy, while the regime’s own mismanagement and heavy-handedness — seen, most recently and tragically, in its accidental shooting down of a civilian passenger jet last week — have fueled angry protests at home.
According to analysts, Iranian officials are furious not just at the United States, which first abrogated the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — the formal name for the nuclear deal — by reimposing sanctions on the country. They also have grown frustrated and impatient with the Europeans, who have failed to deliver meaningful financial relief to Tehran as Washington chokes off Iranian energy exports.
In their statement, the British, French and German foreign ministers insisted they weren’t becoming party to Trump’s pressure campaign. “By initiating the dispute mechanism, the Western European signatories begin a process within the deal that could result in a ‘snapback’ of U.N. sanctions, although officials made clear that such an outcome is not their current intention,” wrote my colleague Loveday Morris. “Instead, they appear to hope that triggering the process could help bring Iran back in line with its commitments under the 2015 agreement, which Tehran negotiated with the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China.”
But there’s a significant chance things don’t go according to plan. “Under the dispute resolution mechanism, countries have 30 days to resolve their problem, though that can be extended,” explained Guardian diplomatic editor Patrick Wintour. “If it cannot be solved, the matter could be brought before the U.N. Security Council and could then result in the snapback of sanctions that had been lifted under the deal.”
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Ali Vaez, an Iran expert at the International Crisis Group, told this column, referring to the European action. “In one way, it creates time and space for the remaining parties to the deal to try to salvage it.” But, he added, the real possibility of diplomatic failure and the return of U.N. sanctions would force the agreement’s ultimate collapse.
For now, there are key aspects of the nuclear deal that are still in place. Inspectors from the U.N.’s International Atomic and Energy Agency are carrying out monitoring and verification of a number of Iran’s major nuclear facilities and have the capacity to quickly detect any future attempts by the regime to break out toward assembling a nuclear weapon.
The Trump administration, though, is unmoved and convinced that its current approach will lead to a more thorough capitulation from Tehran. The real result may be more escalation and crisis.
Though Trump himself has insisted he is not in favor of regime change, numerous allies in Washington have made clear that ought to be the goal. Some, including experts at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a right-wing think tank that has played a conspicuous role in shaping Trump policy toward Iran, now argue that “we should expect instability in Iran for years to come” — a consequence, in part, of the unilateral pressure campaign they cajoled Trump to pursue.
On Tuesday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson showed the frailty of the current European position when he suggested in a TV interview that it may be best to replace the JCPOA with a Trump-branded agreement. But new talks are nowhere in sight.
“The prospects for Iran coming back to negotiating table under current circumstances are nonexistent,” Vaez told Today’s WorldView. “The Iranians see this as extortion.”
Had the nuclear deal endured in its Obama-era form, there could have been the basis for fresh rounds of negotiations between the deal’s original signatories. The Iranians had wanted further economic concessions, while European officials hoped to further press the regime on a broad set of concerns.
“A more for more arrangement was totally conceivable,” Vaez said.
Trump has dispelled that possibility. “Over a year and a half ago, we were in a situation in which Iran was in full compliance of its JCPOA commitments — a situation in which maritime security in the Gulf was far higher than it is today and in which we were simply not talking about the risk of a regional if not a broader global escalation,” said Nathalie Tocci, a former top E.U. foreign policy adviser, in a call with reporters last week organized by the European Leadership Network.
“This is not a chicken and egg situation,” Tocci added. “This is a situation that has a clear cause, and that cause is the violation by the United States of the JCPOA.”