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Reviving the JCPOA after Maximum Pressure
Reviving the JCPOA after Maximum Pressure
Members of the Libyan army stand after a fire broke out at a car tyre disposal plant during clashes against Islamist gunmen in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi on 23 December 2014. AFP/Abdullah Doma
Report 157 / Middle East & North Africa

Libya: Getting Geneva Right

After six months of worsening clashes, Libya is on the brink of all-out civil war and catastrophic state collapse. All parties must press the two rival authorities to join a national unity government, resolutely uphold the UN arms embargo, and persuade regional actors to stop fuelling the conflict.

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Executive Summary

Libya’s deteriorating internal conflict may be nearing a dramatic turning point. Over six months of fighting between two parliaments, their respective governments and allied militias have led to the brink of all-out war. On the current trajectory, the most likely medium-term prospect is not one side’s triumph, but that rival local warlords and radical groups will proliferate, what remains of state institutions will collapse, financial reserves (based on oil and gas revenues and spent on food and refined fuel imports) will be depleted, and hardship for ordinary Libyans will increase exponentially. Radical groups, already on the rise as the beheading of 21 Egyptians and deadly bombings by the Libyan franchise of the Islamic State (IS) attest, will find fertile ground, while regional involvement – evidenced by retaliatory Egyptian airstrikes – will increase. Actors with a stake in Libya’s future should seize on the UN’s January diplomatic breakthrough in Geneva that points to a possible peaceful way out; but to get a deal between Libyan factions – the best base from which to counter jihadis – they must take more decisive and focused supportive action than they yet have.

Since mid-2014, fighting has spread and intensified. Aerial bombardment and attacks on civilian infrastructure have increased; at least 1,000 Libyans have died (some estimates are as high as 2,500), many of them non-combatants; and internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees have increased from 100,000 to 400,000. The fledging post-Qadhafi state is beginning to buckle: basic goods and fuel are in short supply; in some urban areas people no longer have reliable access to communications or electricity and are using firewood for cooking. The likelihood of major militia offensives in cities like Benghazi raises the spectre of humanitarian disaster. Moreover, Libya faces the prospect of insolvency within the next few years as a result of falling oil revenue and faltering economic governance, as militias battle for the ultimate prize: its oil infrastructure and financial institutions.

As the crisis has deepened, the positions of the rival camps have hardened, and their rhetoric has become more incendiary. Libyans, who united to overthrow Qadhafi in 2011, now vie for support from regional patrons by casting their dispute in terms of Islamism and anti-Islamism or revolution and counter-revolution. The conflict’s reality, however, is a much more complex, multilayered struggle over the nation’s political and economic structure that has no military solution. A negotiated resolution is the only way forward, but the window is closing fast.

The two rounds of talks the UN hosted in Geneva on 14-15 and 26-27 January 2015 mark a minor breakthrough: for the first time since September 2014, representatives of some of the factions comprising the two main rival blocs met and tentatively agreed to a new framework that will at least extend the talks. This is testimony to the tenacity and relentless shuttle diplomacy of Bernardino León, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative. The road is long, and there will be setbacks, for example if parties refuse to participate or pull out; the General National Council (GNC) in Tripoli only belatedly agreed to participate in the talks, while the Tobruk-based House of Representative (HoR) announced it was suspending its participation in them on 23 February. Yet, this is the only political game in town and the only hope that a breakdown into open warfare can be avoided. To build on León’s initiative and ensure that ongoing discussion produces an agreement with nationwide support, however, members of the international community supporting a negotiated outcome must reframe their approach and do more to support him.

The way in which they have tended to frame the conflict should be modified first. The dominant approach to the parties has been to assess their legitimacy. The question, however, should no longer be which parliament, the HoR or the GNC, is more legitimate or what legal argument can be deployed to buttress that legitimacy. Chaos on the ground and the exclusionary behaviour of both camps have made that moot. An international approach that is premised on the notion the HoR is more legitimate because elected but does not take into account how representative it really is encourages it to pursue a military solution. Conversely, it feeds GNC suspicion that the international community seeks to marginalise or even eradicate the forces that see themselves as “revolutionary” (among them, notably, Islamists), as has happened elsewhere in the region.

Libya needs a negotiated political bargain and an international effort that channels efforts toward that goal. Outside actors will have to offer both sides incentives for participation and make clear that there will be consequences for those who escalate the conflict. Immediate steps should be taken to reduce the arms flow into the country and prevent either camp from taking over its wealth. The alternative would only lead to catastrophe and should not be an option.

In sum, the UN Security Council and others supportive of a negotiated political solution should:

  • de-emphasise “legitimacy” in public statements and instead put the onus on participation in the UN-led negotiations and on behaviour on the ground, notably adherence to ceasefires and calls to de-escalate. Rather than interpreting the legal and constitutional consequences of the Supreme Court’s ambiguous ruling on this question, they should indicate that those consequences are best negotiated as part of a wider roadmap toward a new constitution and permanent representative institutions;
     
  • be more forthright in confronting regional actors who contribute to the conflict by providing arms or other military or political support – notably Chad, Egypt, Qatar, Sudan, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – and encourage them to press their Libyan allies to negotiate in good faith in pursuit of a political settlement. Military intervention on counter-terrorism grounds, as requested by Egypt, would torpedo the political process, and for now should be opposed. Regional actors who attempt to support negotiations, notably Algeria and Tunisia, should be encouraged and helped;
     
  • devise, without prejudice to the UN’s efforts to achieve reconciliation, political and military strategies to fight terrorism in coordination with Libyan political forces from both camps but refrain from supporting outside military intervention to combat the IS. The GNC and its supporters should unambiguously condemn IS actions, and the HoR should refrain from politicising them.
     
  • keep in place the UN arms embargo, expressly reject its full or partial lifting and strengthen its implementation to the extent possible;
     
  • consider UN sanctions against individuals only if so advised by the Secretary-General and his representative. If enacted, they should be linked to the political process and applied or lifted according to transparent criteria for individuals on all sides, focusing on incitement to or participation in violence; and
     
  • protect the neutrality and independence of financial and petroleum institutions: the Central Bank of Libya (CBL), the National Oil Company (NOC) and the Libyan Investment Authority (LIA); and ensure that these manage the national wealth to address the basic needs of the people and contribute to a negotiated political solution.

Tripoli/Brussels, 26 February 2015

Reviving the JCPOA after Maximum Pressure

Reviving the Iran nuclear deal could help alleviate the threat of nuclear proliferation and cool regional tensions. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2021 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to support the Biden administration in re-engaging with Tehran and to facilitate trade between Europe and Iran.

The Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign, which defined its Iran policy and underpinned much of its approach to the wider Middle East, did not succeed. Its punitive approach was meant to curtail Iranian nuclear activity, which increased instead, and to lower regional tensions, which rose dramatically. Tehran responded to U.S. unilateral sanctions with a series of breaches of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), slowly weakening the landmark 2015 nuclear accord. The deal’s further erosion could spark a non-proliferation crisis. Enmity between the U.S. and Iran, manifested in risky tit-for-tat military exchanges in the region, additionally strained relations between the Islamic Republic and U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The mutual distrust simmered for years, frequently coming perilously close to a boil.

Joe Biden’s election to the U.S. presidency has raised hopes for a new U.S. Iran policy in 2021 that can help bring down the temperature in the Middle East and alleviate the threat of nuclear proliferation by reviving the JCPOA. To assist in these endeavours, the EU and its member states should: 

  • Support the Biden administration in re-engaging with Tehran and returning the U.S. to the JCPOA if Iran restores its compliance with the deal.
     
  • Encourage the Biden administration to facilitate international humanitarian support to Iran in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including Tehran’s request for an International Monetary Fund loan.
     
  • Facilitate growth in trade between Europe and Iran as a crucial element in delivering the benefits envisioned under the nuclear agreement and laying the foundation for discussions with Tehran on a broader agenda, including Iran’s regional power projection and ballistic missile program. At the December 2020 EU-Iran High-Level Dialogue, both sides affirmed their interest in deepening bilateral cooperation. 
     
  • Encourage Gulf Arab states and Iran to enter an inclusive regional dialogue aimed at reducing frictions and opening communication channels to prevent dangerous misunderstandings.

A Vital Opening for Nuclear and Regional Diplomacy 

The 2018 U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA put the nuclear deal under significant stress. Instead of delivering an improved accord, as the Trump administration boasted it would, it ended up demonstrating the importance of the existing one. Sweeping sanctions put in place by Washington in pursuit of maximalist demands, compounded in 2020 by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and Tehran’s mismanagement, have driven Iran’s economy into three years of recession in a row and quashed Iranian expectations that the agreement would yield financial rewards. 

Tehran has in turn broken its commitments to restrict its nuclear program. Notably, since 2019 it expanded its enriched uranium stockpile, raised the level of enrichment, and stepped up its research and development activity. On 2 December, following the killing of senior Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh the previous month, which media outlets and others widely attributed to Israel, the Iranian parliament passed legislation that would enable further breaches of the JCPOA. The government has already implemented the first of these parliamentary instructions by raising the uranium enrichment level to 20 per cent in early January. Another measure instructs the Iranian government to stop allowing enhanced international inspections under the Additional Protocol to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Tehran has been voluntarily implementing as part of the JCPOA, by 21 February if the JCPOA’s other signatories do not deliver various economic benefits laid out in the deal by that time. Limiting access would be a serious concern for the UK, France and Germany – the so-called E3 – who, along with China, Russia and Iran, remain JCPOA participants. 

The EU, which convenes the JCPOA signatory states under the Joint Commission, has played a pivotal role in diplomatic efforts to keep the accord alive, viewing it as the best available framework for holding Iran’s nuclear activities in check. But, at least in Tehran’s view, both the EU and E3 have failed so far to match their declared commitment to the deal with meaningful sanctions relief.

As the JCPOA began to unravel, regional tensions ratcheted upward in a series of incidents that risked major escalation.

As the JCPOA began to unravel, regional tensions ratcheted upward in a series of incidents that risked major escalation. Some of these incidents involved Iran and the U.S. alone, but others, such as a string of attacks on commercial shipping in the Gulf, underscored the entanglement of their respective allies as well. The danger is heightened by the near absence of consistent communication and decades of accumulated distrust between Iran and the two major Gulf Arab powers, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which have precluded a security dialogue needed to mitigate tensions. These Gulf Arab states – along with Israel – are also pressing the U.S. not to rejoin the JCPOA or lift sanctions without concrete commitments from Tehran on matters that they consider of paramount concern, such as Iran’s ballistic missile program and what they view as its destabilising role in Yemen, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. 

Recommendations for the EU and its Member States

The EU can play an important role in stabilising the nuclear agreement and championing constructive dialogue among Gulf actors. Having spent the past two and a half years hailing the JCPOA’s importance, the EU and its member states can claim vindication as they urge both Washington and Tehran to return to compliance with the agreement. Strong diplomatic support for reviving the JCPOA will strengthen the Biden administration’s hand against domestic critics urging it not to relinquish the leverage purportedly accumulated as a result of the “maximum pressure” approach. The Joint Commission can also help develop a roadmap and a timetable for Iran’s and the U.S.’s full resumption of their JCPOA obligations.

The EU and member states could buy more time and space for the incoming Biden administration by offering Iran, with Washington’s green light, some economic incentives of their own. For instance, they could revive President Emmanuel Macron’s 2019 initiative to pre-purchase Iranian oil as long as Iran agrees to halt any additional nuclear and regional escalation before the new U.S. administration moves to effectively dismantle the sanctions. European states should also work with the private sector to expand trade between Europe and Iran, which has deteriorated despite initiatives such as the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX), through providing European firms willing to re-engage with the Iranian market or invest in Iran with economic incentives, such as tax breaks. As part of its engagement with the new Biden administration, the EU should press for any measures that can provide immediate humanitarian relief to Iran, including approval of Tehran’s International Monetary Fund loan request for dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

European states should also work with the private sector to expand trade between Europe and Iran.

Shoring up the JCPOA does not mean dismissing non-nuclear concerns. European governments, like the U.S. and some of its regional allies, are apprehensive about Iran’s ballistic-missile development, its support of various armed non-state actors, and its human rights record. But stabilising an existing agreement that addresses a key strategic issue offers the best foundation for follow-on negotiations with Tehran.

In parallel to the nuclear file, Europe can help de-escalate regional tensions by encouraging and supporting dialogue between Iran and Gulf Arab states and emphasising that diplomacy offers the best way to both prevent violent incidents from spinning out of control and lay the foundations for a durable regional security framework. Launched as a diplomatic initiative by a core group of European states, with support from the EU high commissioner and the UN secretary-general, regional actors should be prepared to take ownership of such a dialogue to maximise the chances of success. While the Biden administration would need to nudge the Gulf Arab states to talk to Iran, European governments can hold preparatory discussions to understand interests, concerns and aspirations, as well as offer to provide venues for the dialogue, possibly in coordination with the U.S. They could also convene technical discussions among regional states, backed by the relevant UN agencies, to foster cooperation on issues of common interest, such as climate change, public health and maritime security.