Why Europe has to defend the nuclear deal
Marina Forti interviews Nathalie Tocci 7 June 2018

Europeans have a strategic interest in saving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the July 2015 agreement on the Iranian nuclear programme, even after the US president’s decision to unilaterally abandon it.

One must bear in mind that this agreement was signed by Iran, the United States, Russia, China, France, Germany and the United Kingdom together with the European Union. “Europe has basically three reasons for wanting to save this agreement,” says Nathalie Tocci, director of the Institute of International Affairs and advisor to the European High Representative for International Affairs, Federica Mogherini. “First of all, what is at stake is nuclear non-proliferation. The JCPOA sets stringent limitations to the Iranian nuclear programme, thereby guaranteeing that Iran will remain within the framework of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. At a time at which threats of proliferation are real – it is sufficient to consider North Korea – it is madness to destroy one of the few stable non-proliferation elements”, she notes. Tocci goes on to say that were Iran also “to abandon the agreement and restart enriching uranium, it is very probable that Saudi Arabia would also be tempted to set up its own nuclear programme, as would Turkey and perhaps Egypt. As far as Israel is concerned, we know it is already abundantly equipped with nuclear weapons. All in all, this would spark a nuclear armaments race in a region that is already incandescent, saying goodbye to a global regime of non-proliferation.” The second reason, she notes, “concerns the Middle East; the nuclear agreement certainly does not per se guarantee the region’s security. It is however equally certain that a Middle East without the JCPOA would become even more unstable and explosive than it already is. And this would have instant negative repercussions in Europe.”

Tocci explains that the third reason is perhaps the most important of all: “The agreement is based on the principle of multilateralism and on the idea that agreements can be reached through international diplomacy. It is also integrally part of international law since it was sanctioned by a United Nations Security Council resolution. The European Union and its individual member states cannot survive within a system that is not multilateral, governed by certain rules and centred on international law.” She makes the further point about the international rule of law: “If one country that has signed an agreement sanctioned by the Security Council decides to unilaterally abandon it, because it has a new government that does not like the agreement, one loses one of the main cornerstones of international law: pacta sunt servanda – pacts must be respected. However, in a world of strong and powerful nation-states, each dictating their own laws without clear rules, the European Union – both its small and large states – would be the loser. Saving multilateralism is an existential interest for the European Union.”

Iran will remain in the JCPOA if the other signatories continue to comply with the agreement, namely if it can continue to enjoy the benefits that were to have been guaranteed by this agreement – trade and investments. The United States, however, has announced not only sanctions for Iran, but also sanctions to be imposed on banks and companies in third states that do business with Iran, the so-called “secondary sanctions”. What means are available to the European Union to provide Tehran with the guarantees it is in search of?

“The European Union is working on implementing concrete measures in this sense. These are a series on inter-European measures. There is talk, for example, of revisiting the so-called ‘EU blocking regulation’, which was adopted during the Nineties to avoid European companies being affected by ‘secondary sanctions’ imposed by the United States. Such a measure would be of great importance and would also be, above all, of symbolic value as far as Iran is concerned. Another more promising option being explored is that of opening credit lines to support exports and investments in Iran and these would be in euros and not in dollars. This would be similar to what the last Italian government did and consisted of an agreement signed in January on a five billion euro credit line managed by Invitalia in order to guarantee transactions with Iran. One can envisage that this will be needed by small and medium-sized companies because, realistically speaking, larger ones more exposed in the United States will not want to run risks. Another similar option is the financial one, thus guaranteeing that the Swift system remains open to Iran. These are all inter-European measures, which at such a time are the most important elements. By taking these very important steps, we Europeans are proving to Iran that in addition to statements made, we are seriously committed to remaining in the JCPOA. To this one must add more political measures, such as strengthening the dialogue with the other signatories, Russia and China, as well as with Iran itself. The objective is to establish a political dialogue addressing a series of regional issues. It is important that this should not become a sort of ‘everyone against Iran’, but, on the contrary, a dialogue, at times also critical, addressing shared strategic and political issues. For Iran this would mean having a bridge with the West, now the only one that remains, and one must believe that it has every interest in ensuring it remains open, instead of relying only on the Russian–Chinese channel.”

President Trump’s decision has also affected trans-Atlantic relations.

“Of course, and that is why maintaining a dialogue with the United States remains important. One needs to try and reason with the Trump administration to the extent that this is possible, also because this has become absurd. Washington orders sanctions on the Europeans because they respect an agreement that the Americans themselves negotiated and signed and that is part of international law. The world is upside down.”

During the months that preceded America’s announcement, various European leaders tried to persuade Trump not to leave the JCPOA, proposing a series of concessions – new sanctions, new negotiations. The Iranians have observed that this created “ambiguity”. What is your opinion?

“It is true, between October 2017 and the day President Trump announced his decision, the three European signatory countries tried to persuade him in various ways. But in this desperate attempt to discuss matters with Washington they forgot that the agreement was with Tehran. Their efforts were, in the end, pointless. Trump has never been interested in negotiating with Iran; he is in search of regime change and considers any agreement to be a legitimisation of the current regime. There was never the option that Trump would respect the agreement and it became all the clearer when a man like John Bolton arrived at the White House as National Security Advisor. The attempts made by the Europeans were also damaging because, in a way, they implicitly – and even at times explicitly in the case of France – implied that this agreement is imperfect. An agreement is a compromise; each side concedes something. But talk of changing it means weakening it. In this sense, it is true that the Europeans displayed a degree of ambiguity. Attempts made by the three European countries had no affect on the United States and have been damaging for our interest in safeguarding the agreement.”

Are you under the impression that Europeans will remain united in implementing the economic countermeasures required to safeguard the JCPOA? Or will we see everyone race to protect their own interests, perhaps negotiating separately with the United States on exemptions for their companies working in Iran?

“In this situation, action taken at a national level would in any case be insufficient. What is needed is a common European stand. For example, the European Council held in Sofia discussed credit lines in euros managed by the EIB, the European Investment Bank. Italy already has credit lines as do France and Spain; but even if added up they do not amount to much, shared action can become a far more important instrument. No, for the moment I see no sign of inter-European divisions. Paradoxically, Trump’s decision has united Europe. If the American president had opted for a ‘soft exit’, simply threatening to leave at some future point, he would have destroyed the JCPOA with a thousand blows, rendering it useless. We would have seen the Europeans increasingly divided between those more or less pro-America, just as happened in recent months – something that had a lacerating effect on the agreement. Trump’s clean break made all this obsolete and now Europe can only react in a united manner.”

Translated by Francesca Simmons

AFP PHOTO / STR