(as published on the website Lobelog Foreign Policy on November 16th, 2016)
As we all know by now, withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal could be a very simple matter for the United States. It could come in three ways. First, a vote by Congress to reintroduce sanctions that were previously suspended or cancelled, if not waived or vetoed by the new president, would represent a sufficiently significant breach of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to constitute an effective withdrawal if any of the parties, including Iran, wanted to construe it as such. Second, the same outcome could be achieved if President Trump chose not to renew one or several “national interest” waivers included in U.S. sanctions legislation that President Obama used to comply with the JCPOA. Finally, on his own initiative, the new president or his secretary of state or even the White House spokesperson could merely declare that Washington was no longer bound by the JCPOA, as the agreement, after all, is no more than a common declaration of intentions adopted by consensus among the representatives of seven participant states, without the slightest signature.
We know, of course, that Donald Trump, having to face the real world, will likely be forced to renege on a good part of his promises. His declarations on Iran and the JCPOA have been outright contradictory, sometimes suggesting he will tear up the deal, at other time indicating that he intends to renegotiate its terms, and at still other times indicating that he’d prefer to end Washington’s unilateral sanctions so that U.S. business can compete for Iran’s market. But, considering the pervasive and well-established hostility of the U.S. Congress towards Iran, combined with the frame of mind of the future president’s entourage on the subject, the prospect of a chain of events leading ultimately to a US withdrawal from the JCPOA is not to be taken lightly.
Such an event by itself would not mean the end of the JCPOA, if the six other parties to the JCPOA—China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and of course Iran—decide to stand together to keep it alive. This new configuration would effectively take us back to the early 2000s, when Iran was able to trade almost normally with the outside world, with the exception of the United States. That situation was certainly not ideal for Tehran given the harsh U.S. sanctions then in place, which naturally exercised an intimidating effect on the other countries’ economic relations with Iran. But it was, all in all, far more comfortable than the almost comprehensive embargo that was gradually installed with the ramping up of the nuclear crisis in the years that followed.
For the JCPOA to survive and to thrive “on three legs,” so to speak, a few conditions will nevertheless have to be met in the event of a U.S. withdrawal.
The first one, of course, is the decision for Iran not to use Washington’s withdrawal as a pretext to renege on its commitments, or to even try to renegotiate some of them with the remaining parties to the agreement. The most conservative and hard-line factions of the Iranian establishment will no doubt try to take advantage of the new situation to deliver the “coup de grace” to the JCPOA, which never enjoyed their support. For the “Principlists,” such an opportunity would allow them to severely undermine the popularity of President Hassan Rouhani and offer them renewed hope of regaining their hold on the Iranian society and economy.
If such an “April surprise” occurs before the presidential election scheduled for May 2017, then Rouhani’s chances for re-election would be seriously compromised. What could follow—the end of the current “moderate” experiment and the full takeover of the Iranian political institutions by the staunchest conservatives—would benefit neither the Middle East nor the world as a whole.
The second condition is for Europe to display and maintain in the long run a clear determination in favor of the survival and continuation of the JCPOA. High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini has so far made that very clear when she declared over the weekend
…Let me tell you very clearly that this is not a bilateral agreement, it is a multilateral agreement by the UN Security Council resolution. So it is in our European interest, but also in the UN interest and duty to guarantee that the agreement is implemented in full. For the whole duration of the agreement, which is 10 years. I have personally a specific role to guarantee that this is done by all sides, and for sure this is in European interest.
In the political sequence that will begin with the inauguration of the new president, at least two out of the seven parties to the agreement—China and Russia—will maintain their support for the JCPOA. Considering the uncertainties looming over Washington’s position and Iran’s reaction, Europe, with its three parties to the JCPOA—Germany, France, and the UK—could find itself in a leading role, be it in deterring the United States from leaving the JCPOA or, as a last resort, in convincing Iran to remain on board. If this time comes, will Europe rise to the occasion?
To maintain Europe’s unwavering adherence, these three European countries have a singular responsibility. In such a situation, the UK’s position would be somewhat peculiar, as it is set, in principle, to leave the EU in two to three years. The JCPOA’s continuation is obviously in the British interest, especially as Iran is a significant potential customer in terms of trade, insurance, and financial services. Will the British prime minister find in the UK’s “special relationship” with the United States sufficient arguments to dissuade Donald Trump from committing an irreversible gesture? Or, as it starts to drift away from the EU, will Britain find itself, on the contrary, more sensitive to the arguments of the new U.S. administration, more vulnerable to U.S. pressure, and therefore more prone to join Washington in withdrawing from the JCPOA? It is difficult, at the present moment, to bet on Britain’s final position.
For Germany, Iran is also a significant partner for trade and investment, as well as a long-established and reliable interlocutor in the Middle East. It will stand without doubt in support of the JCPOA. And France? Between the UK and Germany, it could find itself in the pivotal role. As in 2003 in the run-up to the Iraq war, France has shown on a number of occasions its ability to resist U.S. pressure. On the other hand, during the JCPOA negotiation, and even a while after its conclusion, Paris has hinted from time to time that it did not consider the deal to be best of all possible agreements. Since then, however, the JCPOA has proved its effectiveness in curbing the Iranian nuclear program, and the specter of a war in the Middle East triggered by the nuclear question has clearly faded away. It is thus essential that the French government, right now as well as in the form in which it emerges after the May 2017 French presidential election, expresses without ambiguity its support for the continuation of the JCPOA and engages proactively in rallying all of Europe behind it. Will it make the right choice?