The 2015 Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), possessed the potential to usher in a new era in Iran-European Union relations. However, Europe squandered this opportunity through a duplicitous and non-committal approach. The joint statement issued by Western countries, including the Europeans, during the meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors, coupled with the decision of Britain, France, and Germany to refrain from fulfilling their JCPOA obligations pertaining to the easing of restrictions on Iran’s missile program and nuclear proliferation, can be regarded as a continuation of their long-standing coercive diplomacy toward Iran.
In an even more glaring contradiction, the Europeans now release a statement abstaining from their JCPOA obligations, all the while accusing Iran of precisely what they themselves are doing, namely, reducing its commitments to the agreement in response to the unilateral withdrawal of the United States from the JCPOA.
The European Union’s approach toward Iran subsequent to America’s departure from the nuclear deal has been disheartening for Tehran in two distinct ways:
- Firstly, Europe feigned “engagement” through initiatives like INSTEX, which lacked genuine commitment on the European side and effectively functioned to keep Iran bound by its unilateral JCPOA commitments.
- Secondly, Europe exhibited a discernible adherence to a policy of pressure, evident through its positions such as threats to trigger the Snapback mechanism, the implementation of various undeclared restrictions on Iran’s economy, and contradictory stances on the human rights situation in Iran.
Despite the European Union’s ability to separate some political dissimilarities from their JCPOA commitments, they neglected the opportunity to establish a foundation for enhanced bilateral relations. By doing so, they could have facilitated Iran’s access to the benefits of the JCPOA, fostered confidence-building measures, and cultivated a new political and security framework in Tehran-Brussels relations. However, the Europeans opted to adhere to the conventional approach of aligning themselves with the United States despite their obligations under the nuclear agreement.
Following the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal, the performance of the Europeans displayed little deviation from that of the United States, even though Iran remained committed to the agreement. It became evident that by incessantly repeating accusations regarding Iran’s nuclear and arms programs, the Europeans placed the securitization of Iran on the joint agenda of Washington and Brussels.
Evidence indicates that, similar to the period between 2018 and 2023 following America’s exit from the nuclear deal, the European Union adopted human rights issues as a tool and leverage to advance their policy of exerting nuclear pressure on Iran. This time around, they are employing similar tactics by making allegations regarding Iran’s lack of commitment to the JCPOA, aiming to justify their own failure to fulfill their obligations.
Europe’s commitments toward Iran
The European Union’s obligations toward Iran under the 2015 nuclear deal are explicit, yet their performance noticeably contradicts this mandate. Concurrently, the European Union exploits Iran’s lawful responses in the form of remedial actions as a pretext for violating the nuclear agreement and United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231. It is worth noting that the preamble of the 2015 nuclear deal’s first paragraph explicitly states that the JCPOA embodies a “step-by-step approach” founded on “reciprocal commitments”.
Numerous reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and joint commission statements of the JCPOA indicate that until 2019, precisely one year after the US withdrawal, Iran fully complied with its obligations under the nuclear deal. Even recent European statements against Iran highlight 2019 as the point when Iran began reducing its JCPOA commitments. Essentially, they acknowledge that Iran demonstrated unwavering fidelity to the nuclear agreement for a full year following Washington’s reneging on the JCPOA. However, did Europe take tangible steps during that time to fulfill its JCPOA commitments?
The stipulations of the nuclear accord mandate that the European Union, with implementing the JCPOA, is obliged to dismantle all provisions of the “European Union Regulations” alongside subsequent amendments that relate to nuclear-related financial and economic sanctions, subsequently bestowing upon Iran the following advantages:
- Transfers of funds between EU persons and entities, including financial institutions, and Iranian persons and entities, including financial institutions;
- Banking activities, including the establishment of new correspondent banking relationships and the opening of new branches and subsidiaries of Iranian banks in the territories of EU Member States;
- Provision of insurance and reinsurance;
- Supply of specialized financial messaging services, including SWIFT, for persons and entities set out in Attachment 1 to Annex II, including the Central Bank of Iran and Iranian financial institutions;
- Financial support for trade with Iran (export credit, guarantees or insurance);
- Commitments for grants, financial assistance and concessional loans to the Government of Iran;
- Transactions in public or public-guaranteed bonds;
- Import and transport of Iranian oil, petroleum products, gas and petrochemical products;
- Export of key equipment or technology for the oil, gas and petrochemical sectors;
- Investment in the oil, gas and petrochemical sectors;
- Export of key naval equipment and technology;
- Design and construction of cargo vessels and oil tankers;
- Provision of flagging and classification services;
- Access to EU airports of Iranian cargo flights;
- Export of gold, precious metals and diamonds;
- Delivery of Iranian banknotes and coinage;
- Export of graphite, raw or semi-finished metals such as aluminum and steel, and export or software for integrating industrial processes;
- Designation of persons, entities and bodies (asset freeze and visa ban) set out in Attachment 1 to Annex II;
With regard to the 2015 nuclear agreement, its text further instructs the European Union to abstain from reinstating or reintroducing the sanctions previously lifted by the JCPOA and refrain from applying any related subsequent sanctions or restrictive measures. The European Union and its member states – along with the United States – had made a commitment to abstain from any policies specifically designed to directly and adversely influence the normalization of trade and economic relations with Iran.
However, the European Union essentially failed to fulfil these vital commitments. A notable example can be found in the Joint Commission meeting statement delivered on July 6, 2018, incorporating the foreign ministers of Iran and the 4+1 group, wherein it was acknowledged that Iran faithfully upheld and implemented its nuclear obligations.
This statement saw the Europeans pledge to uphold eleven specific commitments intended to preserve the JCPOA following the US withdrawal from the agreement:
– the maintenance and promotion of wider economic and sectoral relations with Iran;
– the preservation and maintenance of effective financial channels with Iran;
– the continuation of Iran’s export of oil and gas condensate, petroleum products and petrochemicals;
– the continuation of sea (including shipping and insurance), land, air and rail transportation relations;
– the promotion of export credit cover;
– clear and effective support for economic operators trading with Iran, particularly small and medium sized enterprises which are the backbone of many economies;
– the encouragement of further investments in Iran;
– the protection of economic operators for their investment and other commercial and financial activities in or in relation to Iran;
– the bringing together of private and public sector experts, including through the promotion of Business Councils;
– the practical support for trade with and investment in Iran;
– the protection of companies from the extraterritorial effects of US sanctions.
The delay in launching INSTEX – morphing into merely a rudimentary structure for non-sanctioned goods trade – should be enumerated among the Union’s failures regarding the nuclear deal. This issue served as both a deterrent and a persuasive factor for Iran to relinquish its one-sided nuclear commitments.
The European Union’s retreat from the path of diplomacy occurred even as the JCPOA members reiterated their unwavering commitment to its full and effective implementation, fostering an atmosphere of good faith and constructive engagement at the joint commission meeting held on April 19, 2021. Consequently, they recognized the JCPOA as an integral aspect of the global framework for non-proliferation, backed by UNSC Resolution 2231.
Iran’s perception of European policy
Post the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, Europe not only failed to uphold its diverse commitments towards Iran, it also neglected to maintain effective financial channels for engagement with Iran, while simultaneously closing political and diplomatic channels sequentially. Europe’s sole tactic, whether seeking to persuade Iran to uphold commitments unilaterally or attempting to exert pressure against Iran, was repetitively issuing statements.
This perpetuation of European inaction, coupled with the periodic release of statements regarding the nuclear deal, fundamentally contradicts the spirit and the letter of the JCPOA. Somehow, amidst the clear policy of interaction founded on diplomatic pressure, Europe retains the desire to keep the window of diplomacy ajar, but no tangible steps are taken by Brussels to cultivate an atmosphere conducive to understanding.
Just as previous interaction with pressure failed to yield anticipated results for Europeans, adopting a similar approach at this stage will merely erode opportunities for dialogue without garnering any significant achievements. From Iran’s viewpoint, there is an absence of assurance that Europe will abstain from adopting more hostile policies, even if Iran fully complies with its nuclear commitments.