Iran’s exit from nuclear deal puts Europe in a fix

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Iran’s abandonment of the multilateral deal to limit its nuclear program has put European powers in a difficult position, as the escalating conflict between Iran and the US pushes countries to take a side.

After the US assassination of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani on Friday, Iran announced it would begin enriching uranium without restrictions in violation of the 2015 nuclear deal it signed with the US, UK, Russia, China, France, and Germany.

Under the nuclear deal, Tehran said it would halt its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions.

While US President Donald Trump pulled out of the deal in 2018, the three European powers – known as the E3 – have tried to keep the deal alive, despite Iran having incrementally withdrawn commitments from the deal as the US terminated various waivers since 2018.

Despite the EU’s diplomatic chief Josep Borrell voicing regret at Tehran’s latest decision to reduce its commitments, German MP Nikolas Löbel insisted to Al Arabiya English that the E3 stands by the deal.

“Germany - and I can speak for the other E3 states France and Great Britain - still sticks with the Iran deal because it is our single chance to prevent Iran from building a nuclear bomb and the single chance to get information about the Iranian nuclear program,” said Löbel, who is a Member of the Foreign Relations Committee in the German Parliament from the ruling coalition CDU/CSU.

Iran has also previously said it can easily reverse its steps away from the deal, and the UN’s nuclear watchdog the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) still has inspectors in the country.

But according to experts, the increasingly polarized situation now puts even more strain on their position.

“Iran’s withdrawal has put European signatories to the nuclear deal – Britain, France, and Germany – in an extremely difficult position,” said Jessica Leyland, Senior Intelligence Analyst – Middle East and North Africa at AKE International.

On Monday, the E3 called on Iran to refrain from any violent action and urged Iran to go back to respecting the deal’s arrangements. Following the Iranian missile attacks on US troops, they hardened their criticism, showing signs that Iran is becoming increasingly isolated.

The UK has been the most vocal critic of the three countries, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson stating that slain commander Soleimani was responsible for the deaths of British soldiers.

Leyland suggested that pressure from the Trump administration and the UK’s need for US support post-Brexit means that “it is more likely than not that Britain will ultimately withdraw from the deal.”

France and Germany want trade relations with Iran and are less likely to abandon the deal but are being pushed in that direction in an increasingly polarized region.

“France may be likely to be more committed to maintaining the deal given their historical ties with pre-revolution Iran, but as Germany increasingly sanctions Hezbollah’s operations, tolerance for Iran’s support of such groups wanes, and withdrawal from the JCPOA becomes more likely,” added Leyland.

France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has said that the decision as to whether to trigger the deal’s dispute mechanism will be announced on January 10. If the Joint Commission fails to resolve the dispute within a 30-day period, which Leyland says is likely, then the deal could be effectively dead by mid-February.

Although leaving the deal does not mean that the European powers will automatically follow the US into a “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign, the end of the 30-day period automatically reimposes all the pre-deal sanctions from UN security resolutions, further isolating Iran.

While Löbel insisted that the deal was still alive, he said that Iran was about to cross a “red line” by ending monitoring by the IAEA.

“Germany continues to stand by the nuclear weapons treaty with Iran, even though Iran has now terminated it. We need such a set of rules and should try everything politically to get a new agreement,” he said in a statement.

“The deal is yet alive although the situation became worse since last year … But it is clear that a red line is about to be crossed if Iran ends the IAEA monitoring. First we will have to wait till we get more information from the IAEA,” added Löbel.

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