January 17, 2020
When the US killed one of Iran’s most powerful figures in a drone strike in Baghdad, Washington was disappointed by the response from European leaders.
Statements from London, Paris and Berlin were lukewarm at best, calling for restraint amid concerns over what could unfold in response to Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani’s demise.
Two weeks later, however, and European leaders are taking a tougher stance, particularly with regards to the 2015 nuclear deal that they have been battling to save.
France, Germany and the UK, three of the signatories to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), triggered a “dispute resolution mechanism” on Tuesday in response to Iran ramping up its nuclear program in violation of the deal.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani responded by delivering a sinister threat that European troops in the Middle East “could be in danger.”
The move to challenge Iran over its nuclear breaches is the most aggressive taken by the Europeans since the accord started to unravel when President Donald Trump withdrew the US in 2018.
Europe, along with Russia and China, have been trying to salvage the JCPOA, which curbed Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for a removal of international sanctions that had brought Iran’s economy to its knees.
The European move is the latest deterioration in Tehran’s ties with the West that is causing the JCPOA to die a “death by a thousand cuts,” Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group, told Arab News.
“The reason they took this step now is probably because the prospects for any kind of de-escalation between Iran and the US after the killing of Soleimani appears extremely dim, and Iran has basically shed all of its obligations under the nuclear deal to restrict its nuclear program.”
While Europe says it is still committed to the deal, the dispute resolution mechanism could lead to the matter being brought before the UN Security Council as soon as next month, and to the reimposition of UN sanctions on Iran, a move that would bring the curtain down on the whole agreement.
Ellie Geranmayeh, deputy Middle East director at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), said the decision is assertive but also a gamble that could save or sink the deal.
France, Germany and the UK “will have to manage the process very carefully if they intend not to ‘add a nuclear proliferation crisis to the current escalation threatening the whole region,’ as they stated in their announcement on the decision,” she wrote on the ECFR website.
Despite the risks, the process could also buy the three countries time “to keep the JCPOA on life support until the US presidential election in November,” she added.
The decision came after a tumultuous and tragic start to the year in Iran, which has further soured relations with Europe.
The Iranian military shot down a passenger plane, killing 176 people and initially denying it was responsible.
Days later, as Britain’s Ambassador in Tehran Rob Macaire went to get a haircut after attending a vigil for the victims, he was detained by security forces.
The move infuriated Britain, which summoned the Iranian ambassador in London and demanded that Tehran guarantee the safety of embassy staff.
This anger may have played into Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to float on Tuesday that Britain would be open to a new deal that would address US concerns.
Trump has maintained that the original agreement should have tackled Iran’s destabilizing behavior in the region and its ballistic missile program.
The US wants the Europeans to abandon the JCPOA entirely and force Iran back to the negotiating table, and Washington has targeted the UK and its new government as “the weak link” in this, Geranmayeh said.
Iran was infuriated by the European decision. “Today the American soldier is in danger, tomorrow the European soldier could be in danger,” Rouhani said.
Vaez said Rouhani’s comment is an “implicit threat that should be read in the context of Iran-Europe relations in the past few months.”
Vaez added: “The Iranians are extremely frustrated with the Europeans because they’ve come to believe that the Europeans have played the good cop to the US bad cop, in the sense that they made lot of lofty promises to try to preserve the economic dividends that the deal had promised to the Iranians, but in practice failed to deliver on any of them.”
European Commission spokesman Peter Stano said officials are aware of the threats, but the EU has no plans to leave Iraq.
The European military presence in the region is in most cases positioned with US bases. There are deployments in Iraq, while France has a naval base in Abu Dhabi and Britain has opened a base in Bahrain.
Vaez said Europe, along with the US and its allies, is extremely concerned about the looming expiration in October of a UN-approved arms embargo if the deal remains valid.
US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo last year warned that allowing Iran access to the international weapons market would enable it “to create new global turmoil.”