E3, Russia and China

Solving the nuclear deal stalemate with Iran

The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran is in jeopardy. European governments should use the JCPOA’s dispute-resolution mechanism both to pursue immediate measures to de-escalate regional tensions and to explore a follow-up agreement – or an alternative, should the current deal collapse. By Volker Perthes

When Iran announced in January that it would further "reduce" its commitments under the 2015 deal limiting its nuclear activities, it was not responding to the United States’ assassination of Iranian Quds Force leader General Qassem Soleimani a few days earlier. But both developments reflected the escalating confrontation between Iran and the United States since the summer of 2019. Any effort to safeguard the substance of the 2015 deal (formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) must take this context into consideration.

The Iranian regime declared that with this "fifth and final" phase of scaling back its commitments under the JCPOA, it would no longer feel bound by the deal’s agreed upper limits on centrifuges and uranium enrichment. At the same time, Iran said that this move, as well as its previous phased commitment reductions, is reversible and that the authorities would not restrict inspections of the country’s nuclear installations by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

But European governments say that Iran’s latest step constitutes a grave violation of the deal. Having warned Iran after its previous round of commitment reductions in November 2019, the "E3" – Germany, France and the United Kingdom – have now triggered the JCPOA’s dispute-resolution mechanism (DRM), which is designed to deal with possible breaches of the agreement.

Make the most of the DRM

Under the DRM, the agreement’s remaining signatories following the withdrawal of the U.S. in 2018 – the E3, Russia, China and Iran – have at least 30 days to resolve the dispute among themselves. If they fail to agree on either a substantive solution or an extension of this deadline, then any of the signatories may bring the dispute to the United Nations Security Council.

Restrictions on Iranian nuclear programme (source: Reuters/DW)
What remains of the nuclear deal? With the USA out of the picture, it is up to the remaining partners, all of whom are in agreement that the JCPOA – or an amended form thereof – should continue to exist, to hammer out some revised terms and conditions. Achieving the "economic ceasefire" that Iran expects in return for its cooperation will likely prove the biggest hurdle

That body would then have a month to vote on a resolution to extend the suspension of international sanctions against Iran that took effect when the JCPOA entered into force in 2016. Without such a resolution, the old sanctions would automatically "snap back" into place. And, because U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration would certainly use its veto to block such a resolution, bringing a dispute to the Security Council would be a death sentence for the JCPOA.

This doesn’t have to happen, if the E3, Russia, China, Iran and the European Union (which acts as a notary of sorts to the agreement) use the DRM for its intended purpose. None of them wants to lay the JCPOA to rest. But it is unclear whether the deal can be rescued before November’s U.S. presidential election; and it almost certainly would not survive a second Trump term.

This realisation underpins the slowly emerging consensus, not only among the agreement’s European signatories, that a post-JCPOA arrangement needs to be considered. Although UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has called for a "Trump deal" with Iran, the E3 leaders have jointly spoken of the need to define a "long-term framework for Iran’s nuclear programme".

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