Representatives of China, France, Germany, the European Union, Iran, the United Kingdom, and the United States reach an agreement on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2015. (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)
In the wake of the US retraction from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding diplomatic engagement with Iran, and the future of the Iranian nuclear program (or lack thereof). But even more uncertain is the direction in which sustained US-European negotiations will go.
The US 2016 election trail was riddled with dialogue over which Republican candidate would pull out of the deal first. One would pull out by the end of his first 100 days, the next would say he’d rip it up on his first day in office. This was a fundamental flaw in the sustainability of the JCPOA—it got transformed from the product of years of negotiations and a vital piece of international diplomacy to a campaign talking point. The JCPOA does and always has lacked the necessary domestic consensus to provide it with any sort of legitimate staying power. In pulling out of the deal President Trump and the State Department voiced a number of concerns: the sustained Iranian coercion in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon; persistent human rights violations; the continuation of inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) testing as permitted by the deal; and of course the infamous sunset clauses.
Now, the responsibility of quelling the escalation of the Iranian nuclear program, lies squarely in the hands of the Europeans. And they really do try: when the rumors first emerged that Trump may finally make good on his threats to terminate the sanctions waivers, Macron and Merkel both made their way to Washington, with May’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson in tow. The three countries urged reconsideration and emphatically tried to get President Trump and newly sworn-in Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to understand the potential repercussions of a US withdrawal—the most anticipated of which was a reciprocal Iranian withdrawal—to no avail, of course. But the Europeans were pleased to discover that even with the US walking away, Iran remained at the table.
From a European perspective, pulling out of the JCPOA can only be seen as one thing: a betrayal. European Council President Donald Tusk made this abundantly clear in a tweet after the decision saying “with friends like that [Trump] who needs enemies. But frankly, EU should be grateful. Thanks to him we got rid of all illusions. We realize that if you need a helping hand, you will find one at the end of your arm.” Such statements do not foreshadow much EU ceding toward Trump’s continued demands in negotiations. The “maximum pressure model” that the Trump Administration has been implementing seems to be utterly failing, as such pressure is difficult to translate into policy.
To the Europeans, in leaving the deal the US abandoned their own initiatives: specifically the E3 talks and the deal itself. And with the snap back of secondary sanctions looming over the heads of European businesses, the US has ceded its position as ‘ally’, a power shift that has not gone unnoticed by the Iranians. Iran is capitalizing on this political moment to isolate the US, opting to show face as rational and willing to work with the now E4, as well as Russia and China. But with Tehran calling on Europe for further “guarantees” of economic stability under US sanctions, the EU-US talks continue.
Not particularly poised to be well received across the pond, the US now must negotiate with the Europeans, the prospects for which are both necessary and bleak. Slinking back to the table after vindicating Iranian hardliners who feel the US cannot be trusted, and furthermore, isolating America from its European allies. It is truly up to Europe to drive the direction in which the international community will face Iranian nuclear nonproliferation, and up to them to satiate both Washington and Tehran. Over the next few weeks we shall see whether or not Europe is up to the task.