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Reviving the JCPOA after Maximum Pressure
Reviving the JCPOA after Maximum Pressure
Crisis Group's EU Watch List: 10 Cases Where the EU can Build Peace in 2021
Crisis Group's EU Watch List: 10 Cases Where the EU can Build Peace in 2021

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.

Event Recording / Global

Crisis Group's EU Watch List: 10 Cases Where the EU can Build Peace in 2021

Online Event to launch Crisis Group's EU Watch List 2021 in which Crisis Group’s senior staff were joined by representatives from the European Commission and the European External Action Service to discuss ten cases where the EU can build peace in 2021.

Crisis Group’s Senior staff were joined by representatives from the European Commission and the European External Action Service to analyse the relevance and the policy suggestions of the ten cases presented in the 2021 EU Watch List.

The briefing began with a high-level panel on global conflict trends, followed by a presentation of the Watch List with interventions from EU senior officials and Crisis Group Program Directors. A Q&A with participants concluded the event.

EU Watch List: 10 Cases Where the EU can Build Peace in 2021 (Online Event, 2nd February)