How Europe can save the Iran nuclear deal

Financial Times | : As Donald Trump was preparing to deal a blow to the Iran nuclear deal, European leaders were working to contain the damage. London last week hosted Ali Akbar Salehi, an Iranian vice-president and one of the leading architects of the accord; Paris let it be known that Emmanuel Macron was considering a trip to Iran next year, a first for a French president since the 1979 revolution.

Mr Trump’s decision not to certify that Iran is compliant with the accord has handed the problem to Congress, which must now renegotiate some critical clauses or kill it by re-imposing sanctions on Tehran. It has also left key sponsors of the agreement — Britain, France and Germany — with the fraught mission of keeping it alive.

Europe’s interest in a nuclear understanding with Iran has been consistent, and more longstanding than the US’s. It was the EU 3 who set Iran on a path of negotiations more than a decade ago, winning a freeze in Tehran’s nuclear activities in 2003. The suspension was shortlived; it collapsed over Iran’s determination to maintain a small uranium enrichment programme and America’s insistence on a complete dismantling of nuclear activities.

And so Iran sprinted ahead, accumulating thousands more centrifuges to enrich uranium. Later, as Iran’s economy buckled under the pressure of US-led sanctions, the Obama administration joined its European partners to negotiate a deal that stalled the risk of Iranian nuclear proliferation for a decade.

It was with profound disappointment that the Europeans greeted Mr Trump’s repudiation of the agreement last Friday. They had lobbied the administration hard and lost. Now they must fight back on two fronts: in Congress, packed with hawks on Iran, and in Tehran, where hardliners are waiting to pounce on an opportunity to reverse course.

Diplomats in Europe are relieved that Mr Trump has not yet technically “withdrawn” the US from the accord. The reaction in Tehran too has been measured, so far. For now, European political support appears sufficient for Iran to stay in the deal; even regime hardliners are loath to assume responsibility for breaking an international agreement.

Navigating the politics of the US and Iran, however, will become much harder in the coming weeks and months. Mr Trump’s announcement casts a shadow over the fate of the agreement, undermining economic benefits that underpin Iranian commitment. If investment in Iran dries up, Hassan Rouhani, the recently re-elected moderate president, will lose his chief argument for curbing Iran’s programme, and the main purpose of his government.

Even before Mr Trump’s latest move, the economic advantages had proved meagre. Major banks are still afraid to deal with Iran and the doubt now hanging over the deal will further raise the risk for financial institutions, as well as foreign companies. Mr Trump has not broken the letter of the nuclear deal, but he has disrupted it enough to damage investment and trade with Iran.

Another risk to the agreement is that Mr Trump has demanded stricter enforcement of the nuclear accord and new restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missiles programme. He is also determined to confront Iran’s meddling in neighbouring states. Without these changes, he says, he will terminate the deal. Any attempt to renegotiate the accord, however, is likely to lead Iran to withdraw from it.

Caught between Washington and Tehran, the EU 3 will struggle to find a compromise. Whether they can resist American pressure, or avoid splitting over support for the US, is hard to predict. One way forward would be to push for separate talks on ballistic missiles and Iran’s role in the Middle East, which are of concern to Europe as much as the US. Enlisting Russian and Chinese backing for a new diplomatic track with Iran — Moscow and Beijing are also signatories to the nuclear deal — would encourage Iranian participation in new talks.

Convincing Iran to make concessions may not be impossible so long as it is framed outside the nuclear agreement. The lesson of the accord that Mr Trump is keen to destroy is that the chances of Iranian co-operation are much greater when world powers show a united front.