To save the Iran nuclear deal, the EU and the E3 — Britain, France and Germany — must bend the space-time continuum, stretching a mediation period that could last just 30 days into as many weeks, or months, as it takes to calm the fury between the U.S. and Iran, and to broker a new deal.
Doing so will require the unanimous agreement of Russia and China, and of Iran — any of whom can declare the mediation process dead and prevent further stalling.
It will require withstanding a potential barrage of bullying threats by U.S. President Donald Trump, as well as maintaining the support of U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson as he leads his country out of the EU and begins to negotiate new trade agreements, including with the U.S.
And it will require cajoling Trump and Iranian leaders into signing a new accord, possibly one already proposed unsuccessfully by French President Emmanuel Macron, at a time when the Europeans have virtually no incentives to offer Washington or Tehran.
And those are the more realistic scenarios.
The long-shot options are seen by European officials as a way to keep treading heavy water long enough for U.S. voters to oust Trump from office in November or, seemingly even less likely, for street protests or other unforeseen events to drive Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, from power.
In short, saving the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), will require nothing less than political miracles and a magical manipulation of the calendar. But EU countries view that as crucial to keeping themselves in the game and preventing a direct standoff between Tehran and Washington.
As a result, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, and his team, who are tasked with coordinating the effort, have already waved their wand and created a cloud of confusion over whether the clock has even started counting toward the first 15-day deadline in the mediation process formally known as the “dispute resolution mechanism” or DRM.
Under the terms of Article 36 of the JCPOA, Iran or any of the other guarantors of the deal could declare the other side in breach, and trigger the DRM — setting in motion a 15-day review process, to be followed in case of no resolution by another 15 days of review at the level of foreign ministers. A three-member advisory board could also be created to issue a non-binding opinion on the dispute, operating in parallel with the 15-day foreign ministers’ review or in place of it.
Either the first 15 days, or the second 15 days, can be extended, by an unlimited amount of time, as long as the E3, Iran, Russia and China all agree.
Theoretically, at the end of the 30 days, the matter could be referred to the United Nations Security Council, which would need to adopt a resolution to prevent the snapback of economic sanctions against Iran and the termination of the nuclear deal.
For all practical purposes, if the dispute reaches the Security Council, the JCPOA is finished, because the U.S. would use its veto to block any resolution that would save the accord. The Europeans say they will do everything in their power to avoid that.
On Tuesday, when the E3 announced, after months of deliberations, that they were finally triggering the DRM, some European officials said the clock had started. But the EU said that wasn’t necessarily the case, and that Borrell and his team were still in consultations to determine how the process would move forward.
“It is up to the high representative of the European Union, in his capacity as JCPOA joint commission coordinator, to determine the details and the calendar of the procedure,” Agnès Von Der Mühll, spokeswoman for the French foreign ministry, said Thursday.
On Friday evening, a spokesman for Borrell said consultations were still underway.
A risk worth taking
European officials and diplomats conceded that triggering the DRM posed risks, but that they had done so in a genuine effort to save the deal, and noted that the E3 leaders — Macron, Johnson and German Chancellor Angela Merkel — had pointedly rejected a call by Trump to abandon the JCPOA.
The Europeans said they also ignored a threat, conveyed by a U.S. State Department official, that Trump would impose 25 percent tariffs on European-made automobiles if they did not trigger the DRM. It’s a threat Trump has made before, but European officials said their decision had already been made.
In any event, there is serious motivation for all the hocus-pocus to save the deal: Only by preserving the JCPOA can the Europeans also preserve for themselves a direct role in the most dangerous conflict in the Middle East. Should the JCPOA collapse, Washington and Tehran would be in a head-to-head confrontation, with the Europeans left as bystanders.
“We decided to use all the stipulations of the JCPOA, including the dispute resolution mechanism, not to leave the agreement but to create space for political dialogue with Iran within the agreement,” Von Der Mühll said.
If there’s a magic act underway, the biggest illusion of all may be the Europeans’ insistence in recent months that the JCPOA is still alive, despite much evidence to the contrary. Since Trump reimposed sanctions, efforts by the EU to continue delivering economic benefits to Iran, including by creating a special corporate vehicle called Instex, have utterly failed.
Even Macron, a strong champion of the Iran deal, came very close to declaring it dead in November.
“I think that for the first time, Iran has decided in an explicit and blunt manner to leave the JCPOA agreement, which marks a profound shift,” Macron said at a news conference in Beijing on November 6.
Europeans believe Russia, China and Iran want to save the accord, they are also worried that political events could easily spin out of control.
Frustration with Iran’s continued violations of the nuclear deal has been growing among the E3 over the past few months, both because of the political peril to the JCPOA but also because of the real risk that Iran would once again be within a year of developing a nuclear weapon.
In December, after four announcements by Iran that it was reversing or ending various commitments under the JCPOA, the Europeans decided that triggering the DRM would be necessary if Tehran went another step further. And European officials and diplomats began consultations with Russia and China to lay the groundwork for such a step, which Moscow and Beijing opposed.
“We could have triggered the DRM after Phase 4,” a senior French diplomat said. “We had in-depth and very useful discussions with Russians and Chinese. There was a small hope that we would be able to convince the Iranians to reverse course, that’s why we waited for the deadline of Phase 5 — we really wanted to use every possible opportunity — but we noted on January 5 that not only did Iran not reverse course but it also said it was going to lift the last operational limits on its program under the JCPOA.”
“We were just waiting for the confirmation that they weren’t reversing course,” the senior diplomat said. “We wanted to act before it got even worse with the implementation of Phase 5.”
Previously the E3 had waited for a formal report by inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), but in this case they did not wait. And despite the close consultations, Russian officials have criticized the E3 move.
“This action is associated with unnecessary risks which at a later stage can compel us to recollect: the road to hell is paved with good intentions,” Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s ambassador to international organizations in Vienna, including the IAEA, tweeted Wednesday. He added that the E3, Russia and China “significantly disagree on the way ahead.”
Just about alive
While the Europeans believe Russia, China and Iran want to save the accord, they are also worried that political events could easily spin out of control, or that Trump could take some provocative step that lead one or another guarantor to give up on the process and refuse to keep the clock ticking.
But as long as the clock is ticking, officials said, the deal would remain alive and a diplomatic solution still theoretically could be reached. “It’s not the DRM in itself that will make a solution possible,” the senior French diplomat said. “It ensures that a political and diplomatic solution remains possible because we remain within the framework of the JCPOA.”
European officials, speaking on condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the issue, have made it clear that they don’t expect the mechanism to yield results quickly, if at all.
And while the Europeans have tried to keep their messaging consistent, some notable divergence has occurred.
Several European officials privately expressed dismay at a statement by U.K. Prime Minister Johnson, in which he called for a new “Trump deal” to replace the JCPOA. Iranian leaders immediately rejected that idea.
The intricate DRM process was drafted largely relying on the expertise of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who spent years as Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations and has deep knowledge of the functioning of the U.N. Security Council.
And the process was intended to deal with allegations of specific technical violations of the agreement, which could be verified or refuted by experts in a relatively short period of time, and not with the broader political erosion of the deal because the U.S. simply abandoned it — without evidence of any specific violation by the Iranians.
If for some reason, one of the guarantors refuses to continue extending the dispute resolution calendar, the deadlines written into the accord would take hold, and following the expiration of the 30 days, the entire matter would be referred to the Security Council.
If that were to happen, many officials expect the U.S. would push for quick action to kill the JCPOA. But there is also a provision for sanctions to “snap back” automatically if the Security Council goes 30 days without acting.
Jacopo Barigazzi and Hans Von Der Burchard contributed reporting.