Europe’s Efforts to Preserve the JCPOA and Political Identity

Monday, May 21, 2018

Alireza Samoudi
Assistant Professor of International Relations; Mofid University of Qom


Q: What measures can Europe take to preserve the nuclear deal with Iran known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)? To what extent do you believe that such measures would be effective?

A: Before answering your question, I would like to mention certain factors that cause the current situation in Europe and the effort made by European countries to counter US sanctions to be similar to resistance of Europeans against extra-territorial sanctions imposed against Iran and Cuba by the administration of former US president, Bill Clinton, back in 1996. At that time, Europeans took legal action against the United States through the World Trade Organization and after a special investigation commission was set up, Americans finally accepted not to apply secondary sanctions to non-American companies. In a general overview and considering the fact that Iran was the European Union’s 33rd trading partner in 2017, it is strongly possible that Europe would finally prefer the United States over Iran. However, regardless of the fact that Iran is not an important trading partner for Europe, European countries have been focused on a global strategy following the exit of Britain from the Union. Within framework of that strategy, Iran has been given priority on two fronts. First of all, European countries have been willing to use the JCPOA as a role model to settle other crises between Iran and the European Union and also to resolve the existing crises in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. Secondly, preservation of the JCPOA is very important for the credit of the European Union and withdrawing from it without any necessary excuse and pretext, would not be considered as an appropriate measure for this Union. This is especially true after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has confirmed in ten reports that Iran has been complying with its commitments as per the JCPOA. On the other hand, a glance at the current leaders of Europe will reveal important differences between them and their predecessors. It is clear that they seek to be more independent of and less following suit with the United States. For example, French President Emmanuel Macron is showing less Atlantic tendencies compared to his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, and following withdrawal of Britain from the European Union, he is trying to gain a leadership role among European countries. In addition, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose domestic standing is not as strong as before following recent general elections, is currently following a more independent approach vis-à-vis the United States. However, as to how far this independence will go, one should wait for the meeting of a commission, which is expected to be set up soon to see into the West’s concerns about Iran, and see on what issues its participants will agree. On the other hand, a comparison of the incumbent US President Donald Trump and his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, with Clinton and his secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, in the 1990s, will also show that then Democratic US administration did not follow the current aggressive approach to Iran. Therefore, the Clinton administration did not insist as much as Trump's administration on imposing sanctions on Iran. In my opinion, since news and information on this issue are still nascent, it is too early to provide an accurate analysis on these developments. At any rate, Europeans have announced that they will stand by Iran to the last in order to preserve the JCPOA provided that Iran would also stay in the deal. I think that following a forthcoming expert meeting in Bulgaria and after Europe’s commitment to Iran's interests and its will for resisting the US sanctions becomes clear in the next couple of weeks, it will be easier to get a more transparent image of the fate of the JCPOA. In my opinion, the ongoing efforts and statements made by European officials have raised hope in the preservation of the JCPOA. However, in view of developments that unraveled in the past few years, I am not optimistic about the ability of Europe to resist the US pressures in the long run.

Q: Given the discourse-based gap that exists between Europe and the United States with regard to the JCPOA, what is your opinion about the future outlook of transatlantic relations in view of the relations that each side has with Iran?

A: In general, Europe follows a Kantian logic, which means that it seeks negotiations and talks and multilateralism, while the overall policy of the United States follows a Hobbesian logic, which means that it uses military power, force, unilateralism and mounting pressure in different fields. Another point is the role that the United States played in maintaining stability and security of Europe during the Cold War period and even before that when American forces joined their European counterparts during World War II and expedited the fall of the Nazi Germany. This role has caused Europeans to feel in debt to the United States. In addition, when it comes to military might, Europeans are not as capable as the United States and, therefore, are not able to resolve their crises on their own and have to depend on Americans through NATO and other military arrangements. A prominent example of this reality was observed during the crisis in Ukraine in 2014. Of course, they have also major and minor differences of viewpoints in certain cases, including on the issue of Iran or environmental issues. However, at the end of the day, Europe cannot act independent of the United States. The main point is that since 2015 and after failing to prevent annexation of the Crimean Peninsula by Russia during the Ukraine crisis, European countries have been trying to appear in the role of a security and political actor. On the other hand, Britain’s exit from the European Union has to some extent helped cement political cooperation in this regard. However, it is commonly said that “Europe is an economic giant, a political dwarf, and a military worm.” Therefore, I believe that Europe will reach an agreement with the United States over Iran. However, the time for reaching that agreement will greatly depend on how Iran will answer to their demands and the type of game that Iran will play. If Iran remains committed to the JCPOA and, at least, enters into negotiations with Europe over its missile program and regional presence, then this gap and difference will not continue in favor of the European viewpoint. John Bolton, who is Trump's national security advisor, had said recently that Europeans will sooner or later join US sanctions against Iran. Therefore, it is very important to see what happens to the deal between Iran and Europe for purchasing Airbus passenger planes over the next weeks and months. This issue can serve as a litmus test for measuring commitment of Europeans to the nuclear deal. In view of the approach adopted by Americans, the JCPOA is sure to be abrogated unless Washington considers exemptions for contracts signed between major European companies, and in general any foreign party, and Iran, so that, they would be able to continue their activities in the Islamic Republic. On the other hand, the sole existing option is for Europe to act in unison and does not appear passive and divergent, because the track record of Europeans in previous cases has not been successful. In order to maintain its credit and take the investment that it has made in Iran's nuclear case over the past fifteen years to a good ending, the European Union must make a move like it did back in the 1990s and ask for exemptions from the United States. Only under these conditions one could hope that Europe and America would go separate ways on Iran. However, it would not be plausible to assume that the two sides of the Atlantic Ocean will act totally independent of each other in this case. This is especially true when one takes into account that the European Union is heavily dependent on the United States in many military and defense areas. Apart from this issue, the European Union is also facing other important crises. Russia’s aggressive behavior, defending security of member countries in the face of the rising military power of Russia, and the risk of terrorism are but a few examples of these crises. In my opinion, Europe will to some extent resist the pressure from the United States just to maintain its own credit, but we must wait and see in which direction negotiations will move during the coming weeks.



Interviewer: Ramin Nadimi
 Expert in Defense and Military Affairs

*Photo Credit: iblagh

*These views represent those of the author and are not necessarily Iran Review's viewpoints.

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