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Despite Disputes, European Allies Are Not Ready To Kill The Iran Nuclear Deal

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Three major signatories of the Iran Deal “served noticed” on Iran Tuesday, formally accusing the regime of violating the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). While some believe this is the nail in the coffin of the Iran Deal, declaring the infamous deal dead already is far too hasty.

Now that this dispute mechanism has been triggered, those challenging Iran’s performance have sixty days to negotiate with Iran and bring the regime back into compliance with the deal. If the parties cannot come to an agreement, it is possible that United Nations sanctions previously imposed on Iran but suspended under the JCPOA may go back into effect. 

Even though the the big three–France, Germany, and Britain–triggered the dispute mechanism, any expectation that the deal is effectively sunk is premature, given Europe is still very much invested in salvaging the deal and explicitly so. In a joint statement, the foreign ministers of France, Germany, and UK emphasized that the dispute resolution was triggered “in good faith, with the overarching objective of preserving the JCPOA and in the sincere hope of finding a way forward through constructive diplomatic dialogue.”

Similarly, the ministers reaffirmed their opposition to President Trump’s partial withdrawal from the Iran Deal and assured that they would not be taking part in the “maximum pressure” approach of his administration. “Our hope is to bring Iran back into full compliance,” the trio stated in their statement. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson stated Tuesday he was looking forward to aiding the U.S. in coming to terms on some sort of “Trump Deal” to “replace” the JCPOA.

In either scenario, the Europeans remain doe-eyed and unconvinced that an exit from the deal was a smart move for the United States and is a smart move for them, so much so that Johnson is already discussing the creation of another deal with Iran. In short, Europe places more stock in “diplomacy” (or what I would call here, full-throated appeasement) over pressure, but as Iran’s performance over the past several years has shown, this faith is grossly misplaced.

Perhaps more darkly, Europe is fully aware that the deal itself is an empty endeavor, replete with superficial restrictions, but they appreciate the economic benefits they continue to reap from suspended sanctions on Iran, albeit far less since the U.S. withdrawal from the deal, since the U.S. sanctions took on an extra-territorial quality. For Europe, this phase of reduced trade is temporary. They still believe some semblance of the deal can be restored. This remains true even for Germany, where trade with Iran fell by nearly 50 percent in the first half of 2019 year-over-year.

Past behavior from the major European powers has shown that, unlike Washington, they are far more eager to appease Iran – and far more persistent, even when their efforts fail. Last January, they attempted to set up a special payment device to facilitate further trade between the EU and Iran in the face of Washington’s sanctions; despite European efforts, the device is currently non-operational. Similarly, this past summer, Europe “rallie[d]” to save the Iran Deal, despite Iran breaching two limits outlined in the JCPOA related to its stockpile of low-enriched uranium and the level at which it enriches uranium. In September, France “dangle[d]” a $15 billion bailout for Iran to make up for the lost revenue from sanctions on oil exports. In many ways, Europe has prostrated itself in its efforts to assist Tehran, and there isn’t much indication that this behavior is changing anytime soon.

The latest announcement from France, Germany, and the UK signifies little more than an attempt to “do something” in the face of media pressure following Iran’s announcement last month that it would no longer observe the JCPOA’s restrictions on enriched uranium production. The European powers feel compelled to respond in some manner to Iran’s latest transgressions, but given their past devotion to saving the deal, and the current language they’re employing now, it seems unlikely they will be walking away from the deal anytime soon, especially if any part of them believes a Democratic president in 2020 would reverse Trump’s moves. As a harsh critic of the Iran Deal and an ardent supporter of the Trump Administration’s withdrawal, I urge caution on celebrating Europe’s latest bark, for given past maneuvers, there’s little promise of any bite.

Erielle is a graduate of Middlebury College, where she focused her research on the rise of fundamentalist Islam in Eastern Europe. She is an alumna of the Hoover Institution and former research assistant at Stanford Graduate School of Business. This past year, she spent several months in Israel as a legal intern at both Shurat HaDin, a Ramat Gan civil rights firm devoted to anti-terrorist litigation, and Kohelet Policy Forum, a Jerusalem-based think tank. A part-time law student at Georgetown University Law Center, Erielle will be graduating in 2022.