By: Laurence Norman
Wall Street Journal, Sept. 21, 2017 - U.S. demands to reopen the 2015 Iranian nuclear agreement have placed European governments in the diplomatic crosshairs, scrambling to heed U.S. concerns without sparking an Iranian walkout from a deal they say is working.
Trump administration officials and their European allies exchanged sharply differing views following a meeting Wednesday night in New York of foreign ministers from Iran and the six powers that negotiated the deal. That came after President Donald Trump’s assertion that he had decided whether to stick with it—while not revealing his decision.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had already said Tuesday that Washington would only stand by the agreement if there were changes to the accord, including addressing provisions that allow Iran to expand its nuclear activities from the middle of the next decade.
Iranian officials said this week they have no intention of renegotiating the pact, in which it agreed to significantly wind back its nuclear activities in exchange for the suspension of most international sanctions.
To keep the deal alive, Brussels may need to strike a balance between U.S. and Iranian pressures, while maintaining a united front among the three European governments that helped broker the accord. European officials say they won’t reopen it but are open to ways of building on the agreement that already exists.
“The agreement is working and is delivering for its purpose,” European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, who chairs the body that oversees compliance, said late Wednesday. “We already have one potential nuclear crisis,” she said in reference to standoff over North Korea’s program. “We definitely do not need to go into a second one.”
Mr. Trump must decide by mid-October whether to certify if the U.S. believes Iran is in compliance with the accord. If he says it isn’t, Congress would have 60 days to decide whether to reinstate suspended U.S. sanctions.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Wednesday that if the U.S. withdraws from the deal Tehran would decide whether to restart banned nuclear activities based in large part on how Europe responds. Europe could keep its own sanctions on Iran suspended.
“Iran has different options. A big part of the equation is related to what reaction the European Union will have to this issue,” Mr. Rouhani said.
With many U.S. economic and banking ties to Iran still forbidden under U.S. law, the impact of renewed sanctions could fall most heavily on European firms doing business in Iran. In the past, European companies have faced multibillion-dollar fines for breaching U.S. sanctions on Tehran.
Ms. Mogherini now faces a set of interlocking diplomatic and technical challenges.
First, she must ensure that the U.K., France and Germany—the European half of the six powers—stick together. All three have said they want the U.S. to stand by the agreement, but at a time that Britain is exiting the EU and working closely with Mr. Trump’s administration, that stance could be tested.
Even if the accord isn’t reopened, any supplementary steps to hem in Iran’s future nuclear activities could also be opposed by Russia and China, which also helped negotiate the accord. Moscow and Beijing are building ever closer economic and political ties with Tehran.
Ms. Mogherini will face pressure to factor in U.S. concerns. The U.S. wants strict oversight of Iran’s compliance and has criticized the sunset clauses in the agreement that allow Tehran to step up research activities and then gradually expand production of key nuclear materials. The U.S. has also staunchly opposed Iran’s continued ballistic missile tests and its growing influence across the Middle East.
The Europeans have already moved to tighten the deal’s implementation. French President Emmanuel Macron reiterated in a speech at the United Nations this week the agreement could be “filled out” with international action to contain Iran’s missile program. The EU hasn’t followed the U.S. lead in imposing new sanctions on those involved in missile tests.
European officials have sounded receptive to the idea of working more closely with Washington to contain Iran’s regional ambitions amid concerns that Tehran is becoming a dominant player in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. Still, there are risks: European firms are taking advantage of the nuclear accord to rebuild once flourishing economic ties with Tehran. If geopolitical tensions flare with Iran’s leaders, those could be at risk.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an opponent of the deal who has made a concerted effort to build a tight relationship with the Trump administration, has said the sunset clauses will mean the country will rush to build a nuclear bomb in 2025.
Mr. Macron also said Europe was open to looking at ways of tackling the fading constraints on Iran’s nuclear activities. However Iran’s growing freedom under the agreement to conduct nuclear research and later to expand its production of key nuclear materials was integral to the negotiations.
In her remarks Wednesday evening, Ms. Mogherini hinted there were tools to persuade Iran to keep future nuclear activities contained. She noted Iran’s commitment in the agreement never to seek to develop weapons and its obligations as a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
However, Ms. Mogherini warned that the U.S. didn’t hold in its hands alone the accord’s fate. This “is not a bilateral agreement.”