Europe needs to build on the Iran nuclear deal, not jettison it

The Guardian | : Invoking the dispute resolution process has upped the stakes, and it risks escalating the crisis

The three European parties to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal – France, Germany and the UK (known as the E3) – announced yesterday that they were triggering the agreement’s dispute resolution mechanism. In a joint statement, the E3 insisted that the move was undertaken “in good faith” and was aimed at salvaging the accord in response to Iranian breaches, not expediting its collapse. But resorting to the mechanism could set in motion the deal’s demise, unless Europe engages both Tehran and Washington.

First, some context. The Trump administration abandoned the nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to give it its official name, in 2018. It put in place biting sanctions against Iran. This unilateral move upended the multilateral bargain at the deal’s core, under which Iran restricted its nuclear programme and allowed rigorous international monitoring of its facilities in return for economic normalisation. With the deal’s remaining parties (France, Germany, the UK and the EU, along with Russia and China) failing to provide economic respite, Iran incrementally broke the deal’s restrictions, arguing that fewer financial dividends merit lessened compliance, a logic dismissed by the Europeans. While Tehran has ostensibly ceased observing key nuclear limits, it has not yet followed through with steps that would set off alarm bells, such as ramping up uranium enrichment to 20% or limiting the access of international inspectors.

The dispute resolution mechanism was devised to tackle technical breaches of the deal, not a political crisis prompted by US abrogation of the agreement. It is hard to see how this process has a better chance of resolving the parties’ mutual grievances than the political talks that preceded it. Resorting to the mechanism, which is an option the Europeans have been debating for months, is therefore a statement of concern over Iran’s violations and also a gambit for bringing Iran back into full JCPOA compliance. The dispute resolution process could, in theory, ratchet up the urgency in talks with the Iranians, holding out the possibility of reinstating UN sanctions against Iran – which the JCPOA lifted – should the efforts come to naught.

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