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Iran's Nuclear Programme - Why Are Europeans Trying a New Tactic?

Iran's Nuclear Programme - Why Are Europeans Trying a New Tactic?
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

On January 14, the Foreign Ministers of the "EU three" (France, Germany and the United Kingdom) announced in a joint statement that they wished to trigger the "Dispute Resolution Mechanism" set out in Article 36 of the nuclear agreement with Iran (JCPoA). While Iran violently protested the measure, the United States are disappointed that the Europeans did not go further.

The latter specified that they did not intend to use the Article 36 mechanism to refer the matter to the United Nations Security Council and trigger a return of UN sanctions against Iran. But without ruling out this hypothesis for the future. Therefore, beyond the purely procedural aspect, what is the real meaning of this European initiative?

We suggest a political reading of it, based on the following three points:

  • The assassination of General Soleimani by the United States has turned the spotlight on the regional aspects of the Iranian dossier and the resulting risk of war. In this context, the position taken by the Europeans is a reminder that a non-proliferation crisis has already begun. The Iranians argue that they have ceased to comply with the nuclear agreement in response to the US withdrawal, and Europe’s failure to compensate for the reimposition of American sanctions. The fact is that, regardless of their motives, Tehran has since May, through a series of measures contrary to the provisions of the JCPoA (in accordance with their theory of "less for less"), resumed a programme de facto leading to the building of an enriched uranium stockpile enabling them to acquire nuclear weapons.
  • This European initiative also sends a double political message to Washington. Firstly, credibility: the Europeans are showing that they are not standing idly by in the face of Iran's violations of its commitments. It also shows resistance, because what the Trump administration demanded of the Europeans was certainly not a procedural maneuver but the outright withdrawal from the agreement. This indicates that, on the part of the Europeans, the crisis over Iran's nuclear activities must be resolved within the framework of the JCPoA.
  • Finally, by taking this approach, the EU three are calling for a renewed dialogue with Iran. Indeed, the procedure of Article 36 of the JCPoA provides for different stages and different deadlines, which can stretch over a number of months. The remaining members in the agreement (in addition to Iran, the Three Europeans, the EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, China and Russia) can agree to increase the number of meetings at different levels and extend the deadlines.

A nuclear agreement in a state of artificial survival?

The fact is that Tehran resumed a programme de facto leading to the building of an enriched uranium stockpile enabling them to acquire nuclear weapons

Let us pause on this aspect because it is the one that can be the source of misunderstandings. Firstly, it is not entirely certain that Russia and China - or even the EU High Representative himself (Mr. Borrell, who replaced Mrs. Mogherini) - will be  willing to play along. However, the Three did warn Moscow and Beijing and have strong arguments to put forward: Russia and China cannot remain totally indifferent to the risk of Iran's accession to nuclear status. It has also been said that the triggered procedure could hold the ground for months, and thus actually keep the nuclear agreement in a state of artificial survival until the next US presidential election.

    This is not impossible indeed, but it is not guaranteed: it will very much depend on the actual behavior of the Iranian authorities themselves with regard to their nuclear programme.

    In this regard, the Iranians have argued that the non-compliance measures they have adopted are reversible - and in fact relatively harmless. This has been a questionable assertion since September 2019, when they broke free from the limits imposed by the agreement in the field of research and development. There is indeed a risk that they will acquire a new type of centrifuge that is much more efficient in the production of enriched uranium. These could come into operation at the Fordow site, which the Iranians decided in November to reopen (again, in contradiction to the JCPoA provisions). These additional violations therefore lead one to fear that Iran has set out to reduce the so-called "break out" time that separates it from the possession of a bomb. Some estimate that around April, the "breakout time" could be between 7 and 9 months compared to 1 to 2 years today. If that were to be the case, Europeans would not be satisfied solely by discussions within the JCPoA Commission, however in-depth they may be. Resorting to the Security Council would become inevitable, despite Tehran's threats to leave the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or other multilateral instruments.

    A procedural chess game

    It is certainly significant that the Iranians have not questioned the role of IAEA inspections; these can provide a certain visibility on their nuclear programme. The Agency's next report in February will be examined with particular attention. At the same time, and if it operates in accordance with the wishes of the Europeans, the Dispute Resolution Mechanism can provide a forum for the various parties to express their concerns. The objective of the Europeans is obviously to get Iran to return to full compliance with its commitments; Iran, if it wants to play its cards right, could try to give guarantees on the supposedly "limited" nature of its violations, indicating for example "verifiable thresholds" regarding the renewal of its prohibited activities- if only to continue to benefit from the indulgence of the Russians and the Chinese and avoid the Europeans going to the Security Council.

    At this stage, the Iranians are putting forward legal arguments to reject the Dispute Resolution Mechanism, but they do not seem determined to block it. In his capacity as "coordinator" of the Commission of the remaining members of the JCPoA, the EU High Representative has just convened a first meeting of experts in February.

    The objective of the Europeans is obviously to get Iran to return to full compliance with its commitments.

    Why are the Europeans - and especially France  - embarking on this procedural chess game set out by the JCPoA Article 36 when a few months ago President Macron was engaged in a much more ambitious mediation? Because this mediation has so far failed to produce results, meanwhile the Iranians have made great strides in resuming their nuclear programme. Is there any chance that the new approach proposed by the Europeans will prevent a rise in tension over the Iranian nuclear issue? This would be all the more desirable as the relative stillness of the situation after the elimination of General Soleimani should not create any illusions: we are in danger of sliding into a new spiral of tension in the region. The combination of a regional crisis and a non-proliferation crisis is therefore quite possible in the coming months. It should also be noted that this could, in a year marked by elections both in Iran and the United States, play into the hands of the hardliners on both sides.


    Copyright : STR / afp

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