British and French leaders recommitted their nations on Sunday to the crumbling Iran nuclear deal despite U.S. President Donald Trump undermining it and Europeans triggering a process that may reimpose sanctions.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron, while meeting in Berlin on the sidelines of a United Nation-backed summit on Libya, agreed a broader arrangement is needed to revive the deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA.
"On Iran, the leaders reiterated their commitment to the JCPOA and also acknowledged the need to define a long-term framework to prevent Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon," according to a statement from Johnson's office.
"They agreed on the importance of de-escalation and of working with international partners to find a diplomatic way through the current tensions," the statement said.
The two leaders' statement came five days after Britain, France and Germany used a "dispute mechanism" to challenge Iran's steps away from compliance with the landmark nuclear deal, which allowed Iran’s economic opening to the West in exchange for curbs on its nuclear ambitions.
The 15-nation U.N. Security Council unanimously endorsed the JCPOA in July 2015 with the support of its five permanent members: Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States. Iran signed the deal with the five powers, along with Germany and the European Union.
But with Trump’s decision to withdraw from it and to reintroduce sanctions on the Islamic Republic in August 2018, the United States ratcheted up the pressure on Iran’s struggling economy and ruling regime while further inflaming transatlantic tensions.
Last month, Iran announced it will no longer comply with most of the deal's nonproliferation limits in reaction to a U.S. airstrike that killed a top Iranian general in Baghdad. Tehran said it remains open to International Atomic Energy Agency monitoring and negotiations with the Europeans.
Wavering faith in Europe
The foreign ministers of France, Germany and the United Kingdom said on Tuesday that in the interests of ensuring Iran never develops a nuclear weapon, they decided to refer Tehran's increasing non-compliance with the deal to a joint commission created to resolve disputes.
They expressed "regret and concern" at the U.S. treaty withdrawal and reimposition of sanctions on Iran. But with Iran announcing it would no longer meet all of its commitments, Tehran has taken actions that "are inconsistent with the provisions of the nuclear agreement and have increasingly severe and non-reversible proliferation implications," the three nations said in a statement.
"We do not accept the argument that Iran is entitled to reduce compliance with the JCPOA. Contrary to its statements, Iran has never triggered the JCPOA dispute resolution mechanism and has no legal grounds to cease implementing the provisions of the agreement," they said.
"We do this in good faith," they added, "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."
Triggering the dispute resolution process could lead to resumption of U.N.-backed European sanctions on Iran in little more than two months. Iran may get the impression that Europe, keen to hail the deal but doing little in practice to save it, is "strategically feckless," Ali Vaez, director of International Crisis Group's Iran project, wrote in an opinion article in Foreign Policy on Thursday.
"While British, French, and German officials are at pains to claim that this is not a first step toward reimposition of U.N. sanctions, failure to resolve the dispute in the allotted time would make such an outcome increasingly inevitable," Vaez wrote. "This would spell the demise of the nuclear deal."
Vaez said that could be avoided "if Europe uses the time and space created by the dispute resolution mechanism to find ways to either provide Iran with meaningful economic relief, even if that provokes Washington’s ire, or to mediate between Tehran and Washington to de-escalate tensions."