Europe Remains Responsive to Criticism of Iran’s Nuclear and Ballistic Missile Activities

Last week Thursday, the United Nations Security Council held a discussion on nuclear proliferation, during which US Ambassador Nikki Haley reiterated the Trump administration’s position on the related issue of Iran’s ballistic missile activities. Those activities include both the ongoing development and testing of missiles that would be capable of carrying nuclear warheads, and the provision of such weapons to foreign allies including terrorist proxies.

Both sets of activities are contrary to the provisions of the Security Council resolution that oversaw the implementation of the nuclear agreement between Iran and the international body’s five permanent members plus Germany. Most Iranian arms transfers are banned outright if not internationally improved. Meanwhile, the text of Resolution 2231 “calls upon” the Islamic Republic to avoid any work on ballistic missiles, but the vague language of the provision has added to the contentious nature of the issue, with Iran and its allies claiming that it is not obligatory.

“[Iran] provides ballistic missiles in violation of U.N. arms embargoes,” Haley said at the Security Council meeting, according to Newsweek. “Its proxies launch them at civilian targets, as we saw when Houthi militias in Yemen fired an Iranian-supplied missile at an airport in Riyadh.”

These remarks came after Haley presented the recovered wreckage of some such weapons at a press conference last month in Washington. In it, she showcased features of those components that allegedly proved that the missiles had been designed and built by Iran and then provided to the Houthi for use against Riyadh. The UN later partially corroborated those claims in a leaked report that acknowledged the evidence of Iranian origin and concluded that the Islamic Republic either directly transferred the weapons to foreign combatants or willfully failed to prevent the transfer.

The UN’s production of this report roughly coincided with a strengthening of European governments’ positions on the ballistic missile issue. The White House has tied these Iranian activities to the future of the JCPOA, highlighting the production and testing of nuclear-capable missiles as evidence of Tehran’s violation of the “spirit” of the nuclear deal. These supposed violations in turn justified President Trump’s refusal to certify Iranian compliance with the deal in October.

That decision was followed this month by Trump’s declaration that the current renewal of sanctions waivers under the JCPOA would be the last, unless the US Congress and the European signatories of the agreement are able to finalize a side-deal that will address the ballistic missile controversy as well as other perceived flaws. As well as objecting to the fact that the JCPOA itself does not mention ballistic missiles, Trump has taken particular issue with its so-called sunset clauses, which remove the newly-imposed restrictions on the Iranian nuclear program beginning about 15 years after its implementation.

Although European officials have generally upheld their commitment to the JCPOA in contrast with Trump’s threats to tear it up, many of those same officials have indicated that they are prepared to work with Congress on addressing the White House’s concerns. This was the focus of an ABC News report regarding a meeting that took place on Monday between US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and British officials including Prime Minister Theresa May and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.

“I think there's a common view among the E3 that there are some areas of the [nuclear deal] or some areas of Iran's behavior that should be addressed,” Tillerson was quoted as saying. His British counterpart echoes the sentiment but also emphasized his government’s view that addressing these things can be accomplished without seriously endangering the JCPOA.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian separately expressed similar ideas at a meeting of European foreign ministers in Brussels. The Associated Press reported that he expressed optimism about Trump’s preservation of the nuclear deal at a time when some observers were concerned that he would unilaterally cancel it.

“We have observed with interest that President Trump has not broken the agreement,” Le Drian said before lightly criticizing the American leader for making “a certain number of demands that at times seem like ultimatums.”

Such statements seem to underscore that the US is continuing to abide by the terms of the agreement in spite of threatening withdrawal at some future point in time. Vice President Mike Pence strengthened that threat on Monday while visiting Israel and speaking with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one of the fiercest critics of the nuclear negotiations that were spearheaded by Trump’s predecessor.

As well as referring to the JCPOA as a “disaster,” Pence proclaimed that the US will “withdraw from the deal” in the coming months, according to US News and World. Some of the agreement’s defenders may consider such statements to be a deadly blow to its future. By the same token, some of its detractors are certain to be relieved by the administration’s apparent reaffirmation of a campaign-trail promise to void the deal or renegotiate it from scratch.

The Atlantic published an article on Sunday that was optimistic about the effects of the JCPOA but pessimistic about its prospects for survival in the midst of the seeming onslaught from the Trump administration. The article suggests that a commitment to withdraw from the deal is effectively no different than actual withdrawal, especially when that commitment is reiterated every time it reaches a deadline for certification or sanctions waivers.

Specifically, the article calls attention to a feature of those threats that has already been widely reported: that they are discouraging Western businesses from investing in Iran, thereby diminishing the promised economic impact of the JCPOA.

The same article is also skeptical about the chances of a compromise that addresses the White House’s concerns and preserves the deal. Even though European officials are continuing to assert that this is achievable, The Atlantic suggests that sunset provisions are necessary components of the agreement, without which Iran will never remain a party to it. This leads to the article’s conclusion that Europe will ultimately face the choice to either “submit to Trump’s ultimatum while hoping Iran won’t react in kind” or “rebuff his demands while risking that he will pull the plug outright.”

It is not immediately clear which option the European Union will pursue if it is indeed put to that choice. But it has been suggested that the Trump administration’s repeated decisions to threaten and yet preserve the JCPOA are based on a strategy of biding its time while striving to generate consensus among European allies.

While that consensus may not yet be at hand, the recent meetings of Western foreign minister underscore the fact that Europe is generally trending toward a more assertive stance on the nuclear deal and the related ballistic missile issue. While the French Foreign Minister struck a critical tone in his commentary on Trump’s “ultimatums,” his tone seemed considerably firmer when discussing Iranian behavior in the two years since implementation of the JCPOA.

Reuters quoted Le Drian as saying that Iran is not respecting Security Council resolutions and also that it is exerting a “destabilizing” influence in Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon. What’s more, Le Drian reportedly stated that he would travel to Tehran in March to follow up on talks that had already begun between his government and that of the Islamic Republic over regional affairs and ballistic missile activities.

Although Tehran officially denied this, it implies that European policymakers are putting forth a concerted effort to mediate between the US and Iran and thereby encourage Iran to submit to measures that would address the White House’s demands.

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