The United Kingdom, France, and Germany (known collectively as E3) have released a statement formally accusing Iran of violating the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal. The statement noted that the purpose of JCPoA is “upholding the nuclear non-proliferation regime, and ensuring that Iran never develops a nuclear weapon”, and that Iran’s violation of the terms of the deal undermines these goals. According to a UN watchdog committee, Iran has stockpiled processed uranium and exceeded the permissible enrichment levels set by the JCPoA. Moreover, the International Atomic Energy Agency found traces of uranium in a location kept secret from the agency. However, they have allowed international inspectors into the country, making the likelihood of the Iranians building an atomic bomb in secret low. The statement released by E3 triggers the Dispute Resolution Mechanism outlined in the deal, which entails 60 days of negotiations.
The release of the statement was delayed after the Trump administration killed top Iranian official General Qasem Soleimani. The Iranian violations of the deal and tensions have continued to increase as the United States pulled out of the deal in May 2018. Obama orchestrated the deal with Germany, Russia, China, the U.K., and France in 2015. It was seen as a major act of diplomacy and quelled the United States’ growing fears of Iran developing a nuclear bomb since the early 2000s. However, in Washington it was controversial, and was one of the promises Trump had been elected, saying it was “a horrible one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made.”
Once in office, after pulling out of the deal, Trump established a “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, entailing major sanctions, including the prohibition of American banking with Iran. Given the usage of the United States dollar in banking worldwide, Iran and its economy has been severely limited. It has also frustrated European tactics to create incentives for Iran; they are having difficulty creating a barter system that circumvents the U.S. dollar.
The United States’ hard-line campaign directly contradicts the policy that the U.K., France, Germany, Russia, and China have followed, which is to preserve the JCPoA and avoid escalation of violence. The Soleimani killing has also been disastrous to the deal. According to the New York Times, Ellie Geranmayeh, an Iran expert with the European Council on Foreign Relations, stated: “people inside Iran pushing for the diplomatic process the Europeans have been advocating have lost a lot of ground.” As the U.S. and Iran seem closer and closer to war, it’s unlikely that Iran will be incentivised to reduce enrichment. Perhaps, more importantly, the degradation of trust between the two countries eliminates the basis for any diplomatic action as long as the Trump administration remains in the White House.
The United States response to the nuclearization campaign in Iran is problematic for a few reasons. The “maximum pressure” policy is intended to compel Iran to meet twelve demands, which include stopping uranium enrichment and withdrawing support for terrorist organizations. Unfortunately, the sanctions that the US has introduced have crippled Iran’s economy. Oil exports fell from 2.5 million barrels per day to 500,000, and their GDP shrank by 9.5% in 2019. The crucial aspect that the Trump administration appears to have missed is that in order to implement change, states need resources, and Iran currently is resource lacking thanks to its U.S. instigated recession.
U.S. involvement is becoming more volatile, as the world saw with the assassination of Suleimani, and Iran has responded to the sanctions with violence; at points attacking oil tankers as well as a U.S. drone. According to the Washington Post, Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council said, “Iran isn’t in a corner; we’re in a corner. Trump has no good options. What more can the U.S. do now? We’ve sanctioned everything and everybody. What’s left?” Unfortunately, the U.S. pulling out all the stops, refusing to believe they’re now “in a corner”. As John Glaser, the Cato Institute’s director of Foreign Policy Studies said, “Trump came into office with Iran denuclearized and with an open channel of communication in place for the first time in 40 years,” he said. “Now there’s no diplomatic channel. They’ve been imposing sanctions without signalling what Iran could do to get them lifted. Pompeo’s demands were a way of saying they will never get lifted, unless they get rid of their entire foreign policy and reform their entire system. Iran saw itself with little option”.
Diplomatically, the course of action other signatory states have taken is more supportive. China has continued purchasing crude oil from Iran. After the attack on Soleimani, Geng Shuang, spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, said “China will continue to maintain close communication and coordination with all related parties, and will take relentless efforts” to avoid conflict in the Gulf and maintain the nuclear deal. China has taken a staunchly anti-conflict approach, saying multiple times that they will not back a U.S. military strike against Iran. Furthermore, China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, has held talks with Mike Pompeo and urged the United States not to start a regional war in the Middle East. Russia has also continued to buy oil from Iran. The sanctions that the United States put on Iran has driven up oil prices, expanding Russia’s GDP. The European signatory states have taken similar stances, although none of them will continue to import oil from Iran. They are also trying not to ostracize the United States in the process of launching the Dispute Resolution Mechanism through the use of carefully worded language. Head of the International Crisis Group Robert Malley has stated: “The Europeans are trying not to offend Trump too much but also trying to keep the JCPOA alive. But the U.S. now thinks it’s winning, so the Europeans are trying now to avoid it all going off the rails”.
The approach that the rest of the signatory states have taken is more appropriate if the goal is de-escalation and global cooperation. Language included in the statement supports this goal: “We do this in good faith with the overarching objective of preserving the JCPoA and in the sincere hope of finding a way forward to resolve the impasse through constructive diplomatic dialogue while preserving the agreement and remaining within its framework. In doing so, our three countries are not joining a campaign to implement maximum pressure against Iran. Our hope is to bring Iran back into full compliance with its commitments under the JCPoA.” The E3 has treated Iran with respect and as what it is—a country under enormous economic pressure from the same country that just killed a beloved public official.
In an ideal world, Iran would denuclearize without conflict. There are some ways to make this happen, however, given the history that the current United States administration has, it might not be possible until January 2021. The nuclear deal should be re-established with all signatory states, and U.S. sanctions on Iran should be lifted, to incentivize Iran to stop violating the terms of the nuclear deal. Furthermore, to establish a trusting relationship on all sides, major holders of nuclear weapons should also consider denuclearization. The U.S., for example, has 4,018 nuclear warheads; the nuclear deal was established to prevent Iran to develop one. The United States has denuclearized considerably since the height of the Cold War but still holds enough weapons to obliterate another nation completely. The take-away from this conflict is that having an open dialogue and using non-antagonistic approaches to diplomacy leads to nonviolent solutions.
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