After UN showdown, INSTEX can help sustain Iran nuclear deal

Bourse and Bazaar | Tytti Erästö: In return for limits to Iran’s nuclear activities under the 2015 agreement, or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the other side—the United States, the EU/E3 (France, Germany and the UK), China and Russia—were supposed to lift sanctions on the country. The US opted out of this compromise in May 2018 by withdrawing from the JCPOA. By deterring most private sector actors from Iran-related activities, US secondary sanctions have also prevented other JCPOA parties from living up to their end of the deal. In addition to a deep socio-economic crisis within Iran, US sanctions have undermined Iranian people’s access to basic humanitarian goods–and pushed the country to reduce its nuclear commitments. The EU and E3 efforts to protect the JCPOA under these circumstances have offered a grim lesson about the limits of European autonomy in a dollar-dominated world economy.

When the Trump administration withdrew from the JCPOA, the EU stressed its commitment to ensuring continued sanctions lifting and to upholding the agreement. This determination was also expressed in practical measures. In summer 2018 the EU included the upcoming US sanctions on Iran in the so-called Blocking Regulation, thus banning EU companies from complying with them. In September 2018 the EU and the E3 announced that they would develop a special trade instrument to facilitate European-Iranian trade, including in oil, which was to be targeted by US secondary sanctions.

However, the Trump administration’s obliviousness to the Blocking Regulation soon exposed the absence of an effective enforcement mechanism to enforce it, and in practice US law took priority over EU law in the private sector’s risk assessments. Apparently recognizing their lack of political and economic leverage over US policy, by January 2019 the E3 had reduced the mission of the trade instrument—then named Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX)— to trade in humanitarian goods.

While its limited focus fell short of previous expectations that the EU could counter or even significantly minimize the negative effects of US sanctions, INSTEX addresses a critical problem created by them. Humanitarian trade, which is in principle exempt from sanctions, has also been hit by the banking sector’s fear of US penalties, leading to a medicine shortage in Iran. In addition to being urgent, addressing this particular area of sanction over-compliance is also practical, as humanitarian trade runs a lower risk of being targeted by US sanctions than other trade areas.

INSTEX seeks to enable the exchange of humanitarian goods or services between Europe and Iran without the transfer of currency, thus minimizing the risk of US penalties. European exporters are to be compensated with funds located in Europe, based on the value commensurate with the value of imports from Iran. INSTEX’ Iranian counterpart, the Special Trade and Finance Instrument (STFI), is similarly tasked to coordinate payments within Iran.

INSTEX can reassure banks and companies through its joint ownership by the E3 and four other European states—Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway, as well as Finland and Sweden, which are expected to join soon. In addition to providing a high level of trust in the instrument’s due diligence procedures, governmental ownership raises the threshold for the USA to impose sanctions on INSTEX.

Having processed only one pilot transaction thus far, INSTEX still needs to overcome major obstacles to function as intended. One key challenge is that the value of European exports to Iran exceeds the value of Iranian exports to Europe. Potential solutions to the problem include paying European exporters using Iran’s revenues currently frozen in foreign banks, or offering Iran a loan to buy humanitarian goods. However, the US is seeking to block these options.

The chances of striking a functioning trade balance could also be increased through the expansion of INSTEX to non-European companies, and extension of the INSTEX mandate to non-humanitarian trade that are not targeted by the USA but are impeded by fear of secondary sanctions. While INSTEX is unlikely to deliberately go against US sanctions, the E3 might decide to take further steps to protect is economic sovereignty if the instrument is targeted by the USA.

Currently it might seem that INSTEX is being taken over by political events, in particular the 2020 US presidential elections. Democratic Party victory in the elections could open the door for the US re-entry into the JCPOA, which would appear to make INSTEX less relevant. However, restoring the JCPOA or reaching any new agreements with Iran is dependent on sanctions lifting. This is likely to be difficult given the private sector’s disillusionment with the Obama administration’s previous assurances about the safety of engaging with Iran. INSTEX could help address this problem by providing additional guarantees to risk-averse banks and companies fearing the next U-turn in US policy towards Iran.

Alternatively, the possibility of Trump’s re-election as US president—or a snapback of UN Security Council sanctions on Iran—could lead to the collapse of the JCPOA. While this can be expected to reduce European commitment to INSTEX, its humanitarian mission should be pursued as a matter of ethical necessity, even without the JCPOA.

Clearly, INSTEX alone cannot save the JCPOA, the future of which essentially depends on US-Iranian relations. INSTEX can nevertheless help maintain the nuclear agreement until, or even after, diplomatic solutions are found. In addition to demonstrating solidarity on the JCPOA and commitment to basic humanitarian principles, INSTEX can also been seen as a test case of a more independent European foreign policy.