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Policy brief | 9 March 2018

The US, Europe and the Iran nuclear deal: is there a sweet spot?

Image of Simon Gass

Simon Gass |Former Political Director at the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Former Ambassador to Iran

Europe Iran JCPOA Nuclear Arms Control Nuclear Weapons Security United States Global Security

In his statement on 12 January, President Trump made clear that he will not renew sanctions waivers on Iran unless what he sees as key flaws in the 2015 nuclear deal are fixed. The US Administration is trying to persuade other parties to the agreement to help address US concerns. The focus is on the agreement’s European signatories, particularly France, Germany and the UK – the E3.

Yet the Europeans strongly support the agreement.  And Iran is complying with the agreement in every material respect. There is no chance that Iran would agree to renegotiate aspects of the deal and there is a risk that unilateral attempts to impose further burdens on Iran would lead to Iran walking away, blaming the US.

Can this impasse be resolved? If it is not, a reversion to dangerous confrontation between Iran and the US is easy to imagine.

This paper argues that, despite this unpromising background, there are ways for Europeans to address President Trump’s concerns in a manner that would not lose Iran – provided both sides want to find a solution.

The elements of a European approach might include:

  • Public European acknowledgement that if Iran were to return in future to an unlimited and practically inexplicable nuclear programme which revived fears of a covert military programme, then the collaborative approach of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) would be seriously, perhaps fatally, undermined.
  • E3/US agreement that there should be purposeful discussions with Iran about this before the agreement’s next key stage in 2023 (“Transition Day”), perhaps initiated by the EU High Representative, reporting to the ministers of parties to the agreement.
  • Agreement to commit resources to support monitoring of continuing Iranian compliance with the JCPOA and to be clearer about what would happen if Iran was believed to be in breach.
  • Joint warning of the consequences if Iran were to develop a genuine inter-continental ballistic missile.
  • In return, a positive US commitment to making the deal work and to fulfilling its JCPOA commitment not to stand in the way of Iran deriving economic benefits from the lifting of sanctions.

A solution on these lines might be less than the US would like and more than Iran thinks fair. But both sides will have to weigh their options if the JCPOA disintegrates. The US would not welcome another nuclear crisis; nor would resolution of issues like North Korea be eased if the US was seen to renege on an agreement which it entered voluntarily. If the US withdrew from the JCPOA, a deep wedge would be driven between the US and some of its closest partners. And, if Iran revived its enrichment programme, untrammelled by the JCPOA, the US would face troubling policy choices.

Iran for its part would have to consider the international, economic and domestic political implications of abandoning a deal that offers the best external hope of providing the economic boost which Iran needs, even if the benefits have been slower to materialise than they expected.

Whether political leaders in Washington and Tehran would accept a solution similar to that outlined here will depend on many factors. But in any case, they should be pressed to answer a simple question: if the JCPOA is lost, then what happens?


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges.