Less than five years after former U.S. President Barack Obama declared that “Every pathway to a nuclear weapon [in Iran] is cut off,” Iran’s path to nuclear weapons is being paved again. In turn, the bridges built between Europe and Iran – on the back of the Joint Comprehensive Protective Plan of Action (JCPOA) – seem to be burning.
In a televised speech yesterday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani stated, “We are enriching more uranium [than] before the deal was reached.”
This followed the Guardian’s report on Tuesday that Europe had triggered the dispute mechanism of the JCPOA, owing to fears that Iran was developing their nuclear weapons again. As one European senior official said, “The concern is [Iran] are going to learn something that it is not possible for them to unlearn.”
This contractual development is all the more the significant as European leaders, like France’s President Emmanuel Macron, had previously worked hard to maintain the JCPOA even after Trump withdrew from it and reintroduced U.S. sanctions on Iran.
As the deal unwinds, tensions between Iran and Europe are rising. On Wednesday, the Iranian President Rouhani threatened Europe directly: “Today, the American soldier is in danger, tomorrow the European soldier could be in danger.”
Worse, the first days of 2020 saw military confrontations between the United States and Iran spill out into civilian deaths. On 8 January, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards shot down a Ukrainian passenger aircraft – mistaking the aircraft for an American war plane. All one hundred and eighty six passengers on board perished in a stark reminder that conflict in the Middle East has human consequences on a global scale.
Moreover, in the fraught environment of the Middle East, the impact of conflict in Iran inevitably reverberated around the region.
On Wednesday, David Rosenberg suggested in Haaretz that the U.S.’s assassination of Iranian General Soleimani might shatter Iran’s ambition for hegemony in the region; in turn, Anton Mardasov suggested in Al Jazeera that Soleimani’s death “strengthens Putin’s hand in Syria and Iraq.”
Haider Saeed, also writing in Al Jazeera, suggested that American influence in Iraq might be under threat too. As Saeed explained, Iraqis are growing angry at the conflict between the U.S. and Iran playing out in their country. Reflecting this anger, the Iraqi parliament voted on 5 January for a resolution calling on American troops to leave within a year.
Though the threat of all-out war looms over the region, a full scale military confrontation is still far from inevitable. Not least because of the efforts of many countries – like Qatar – to de-escalate tensions.
On Wednesday, Qatar’s foreign minister travelled to Iraq where he sought to play a mediating role. This followed Doha’s recent shift to a more conciliatory tone with Tehran. Indeed, President Rouhani, in his speech today about Iran’s nuclear programme, still insisted that Tehran was working daily “to prevent military confrontation and war” and dialogue with the world remained “possible.”
Moreover, the tragedy of the Ukrainian passenger plane being shot down has had a sobering impact, especially in Iran. As the dead were buried or flown home in the following days, bereaved families from across the world mourned their deaths together. The depth of feeling was reflected in Iran’s responsible decision to allow international experts to investigate the accident. Indeed, Sultan Barakathas suggested today, in an opinion piece in Al Jazeera, that perhaps diplomacy might “come after tragedy in Iraq.”
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