By Edward Carney
As of Monday, it has been confirmed that the Islamic Republic of Iran is in violation of the 2015 nuclear deal that placed restrictions on its nuclear enrichment activity in return for relief from international sanctions. Although that relief was largely erased in May of last year after the US withdrew from the agreement in the interest of pursuing more comprehensive terms, White House officials made it clear last week that the withdrawal did not give Iran license to violate the existing terms or to avoid punishment for so doing.
Statements to this effect were made in response to an ultimatum issued by the Iranian regime to the remaining signatories of the seven-party nuclear agreement. Tehran specifically urged the three European signatories – the United Kingdom, France, and Germany – along with the European Union to undertake measures that would circumvent US sanctions and help Iran to realize more substantial economic advantages in line with the original intent of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The regime vowed that in absence of such measures, it would first exceed the defined limits on stockpiles of nuclear material, then would begin enriching uranium to a higher fissile purity than the 3.76 percent that was specified in the JCPOA.
The first of these two breeches was initially expected last Thursday, but Iranian officials then revised their expectations to indicate that it would not take place until after the weekend. The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that Tehran was still in compliance up to that point, in a possible sign that the regime was delaying its planned violation in order to stall for time. The second, more serious violation is supposed to take place if the EU has not provided Iran with greater economic incentives by July 7. But it remains to be seen whether this defined deadline will ring true.
In the meantime, the Islamic Republic continues its efforts to exert pressure on the three European nations and the international community more generally, in hopes of securing greater concessions and countering the rise in tensions that has seen the deployment of additional US military support troops to the Middle East region. The White House insists that it has no interest in war, and such deterrent measures can be very reasonably explained as responses to apparent Iranian provocations, including the sabotage of six tankers in the Gulf of Oman and the downing of a US surveillance drone near the Strait of Hormuz. Iran officially denies the former incidents, but Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps took credit for the latter incident and claimed, contrary to the US, that the drone was in Iranian airspace.
The defiant attitude of the IRGC was echoed by more ‘diplomatic’ Iranian voices in the wake of Monday’s confirmation that stockpile limits had been exceeded. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was quoted as saying, “Today, Iran has to stand against U.S. economic sanctions through domestic production and relying on national potentials.” Separately, Zarif mocked a statement by the White House press secretary which accused the Islamic Republic of violating the JCPOA long before Monday’s announcement, and even before the agreement was implemented.
At the same time, and in full awareness of the fact that domestic production will not be sufficient on its own to defend against US-led economic pressures, Zarif and others have been balancing defiance with overtures to US allies. This was evident, for instance, in the Foreign Minister’s newfound insistence on Monday that the recent and forthcoming Iranian violations of the JCPOA were fully “reversible.” As the European Union has not yet responded to Iran’s ultimatum, the regime appears to be reframing its demands as having an indefinite deadline. The implication now is that European participants in the nuclear deal can resume financial transactions with the Islamic Republic at any time and return to the current status quo as it concerns nuclear enrichment activity and international inspections.
This comparatively passive position was seemingly reiterated by Zarif’s further statements insisting that the maintenance of larger stockpiles and higher-level enrichment does not and would not constitute a violation of the JCPOA. “We have NOT violated the #JCPOA,” Zarif tweeted on Monday, citing paragraph 36 of the agreement as giving Iran the “right” to resume banned activity as early as two months after a violation of terms by another party. Strangely, though, while Zarif claims that Iran “triggered” paragraph 36 in response to the US withdrawal, he also stated that the regime would reverse its latest actions “as soon as the E3 abide by their obligations.”
The three European signatories never re-imposed sanctions on Iran, but have generally complied with the sanctions that the US put in place beginning last August. At the same time, they have continually expressed commitment to upholding the JCPOA even without participation from the US. Toward that end, France is hosting a new institution ostensibly dedicated to handling transactions with the Islamic Republic while circumventing sanctions. The Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges, or Instex, is led by German and British officials and was formally established early this year, but it has yet to actually be used for its stated purpose.
That fact may reflect accusations that the instrument was fundamentally impractical in the first place, but it may also stem in part from Iran’s own failure to adopt legislation that would bring Iran into compliance with the anti-money laundering standards of the Financial Action Task Force, also based in France. Efforts at compliance have been stymied by powerful hardline officials who object to it as a prospective impediment to financing of Hezbollah and other terrorist groups. Nonetheless, Tehran continues to lay the blame for its poor trade prospects at the feet of the European Union, thereby justifying its violation of the JCPOA.
For their part, European leaders do not appear to be buying into that narrative, and a Business Insider report on Iran’s ultimatum even went so far as to say that the recent and forthcoming violations threaten to alienate the last of Iran’s few remaining global partners. So far, much of the international community has shown patience with Iran’s actions while expressing serious concerns over them. But as tensions continue to escalate, that patience will no doubt be tested.
United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres implied as much when he warned Tehran that its actions “would not help preserve the plan, nor secure the tangible economic benefits for the Iranian people.” Guterres than added that he considered it imperative for the issue of Iran’s violations to be “addressed through the mechanism established by the JCPOA,” which Zarif cited in his message excusing those same actions.
So far, the EU has declined to take this approach, which could see international sanctions re-imposed within about two months of a formal complaint. But European diplomats noticeably left the option on the table. And even though British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and French President Emmanuel Macron said that they were respectively committed to “de-escalation” and helping Iran to secure the “economic advantages” of the JCPOA, both men also professed having serious concerns about Iran’s approach to the situation. Meanwhile the German Foreign Ministry stated that the three countries and the EU as a whole were considering joint measures they could undertake if the Islamic Republic remained resistant to the collective insistence that the regime reverse course.
While Tehran tries to forestall such measures by denying and deflecting over JCPOA violations, the US is putting its own pressure on European allies in hopes of broadening their notion of what those measures might entail. Monday’s White House statement promised that “maximum pressure” would continue until Iran’s leaders “alter their course of action,” and it urged the international community to adopt a standard of “no enrichment for Iran” in lieu of the partial limits put in place by the JCPOA. Meanwhile, President Trump responded to a request for comment by stating cryptically that the Iranian regime is “playing with fire.”
Last week, the administration announced sanctions on the person and office of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, thereby further broadening the understanding of where US economic pressure might be targeted. This comes less than three months after the White House broke with another taboo by designating the entirety of the Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization. The harshest critics of the Iranian regime, including the People’s Mojahedin Organziation of Iran, have even recommended going still further by similarly sanctioning the Ministry of Intelligence and Security.
It is an open question as to whether the nations of Europe can be convinced to follow suit on any such measures, although it bears noting that the EU did impose sanctions on known operatives of the Iranian intelligence service after it became clear that Tehran had plotted attacks on European soil in 2018, including the thwarted bombing of a PMOI-led rally in support of regime change, which took place just outside Paris.
JCPOA violations may prompt another assertive turn in European policy, especially in the wake of Iran’s other provocations, including the tanker attacks, the drone shoot-down, and a number of attacks on Saudi Arabia by the Iran-backed Houthi militants in Yemen. A serious European reaction seems all the more likely in view of the fact that Iran has even come under fire from some of its close allies since violating the stockpile limits.
Although China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson blamed the US for contributing to the current tensions, he also expressed “regret” for “Iran’s choice of measures.” Only Russia appears to unequivocally stand behind the Islamic Republic even amidst the current controversy. Last week, with Tehran’s ultimatum still pending, Moscow promised to assist in countering US sanctions, although it did not specify how. And on Monday, Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak expressed interest in Iran remaining an equal partner ahead of negotiations between OPEC and other oil-exporting countries.
Those negotiations ultimately yielded the extension of an agreement to limit petroleum output, even though the White House had been urging Saudi Arabia, OPEC’s de facto leader, to raise its output in order to make up for the loss of sanctioned Iranian oil. Although both are OPEC member states, Iran and Saudi Arabia are mired in an increasingly bitter regional rivalry, and it is unlikely that Iran’s position in OPEC-focused negotiations would prove triumphant under current circumstances if not for Russian support.