The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is the formal name of the Iranian nuclear deal struck between Iran and the P5+1 – the U.S., the U.K., France, China, Russia and Germany – in 2015. The deal was hailed as a peaceful and workable mechanism to limit Iran's nuclear activities by limiting Iranian centrifuges and the extent to which Iran would be allowed to enrich uranium. In return, P5+1 countries promised to undo the crippling sanctions hurting the Iranian economy. Despite the fact that it was a control mechanism coercing a sovereign nation not to acquire nuclear weapons, the Iranians, nevertheless, gladly embraced it, keeping in mind the importance of their economy.
U.S. President Donald Trump, before even occupying the Oval Office, had been critical of the deal. He had promised to rip it apart upon becoming president. Keeping his word, he withdrew the United States from the deal after assuming the presidency. Sanctions were reimposed on Iran in Trump's "maximum pressure" campaign to bring the Iranians to their knees again, though they were fully complying with the requirements of the deal. Europeans, especially the French, tried very hard to keep the deal alive after the U.S.' withdrawal. They even struggled to establish a barter system to circumvent the U.S. sanctions preventing Iran from using international banking channels to do business. But the efforts were never effective enough to provide Iran true relief.
This month, the United States killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. He was the second-most important and powerful man in Iran. There is a strong belief that he was killed because he was the lead man in achieving peace between Iran and Saudi Arabia. If there is peace between these warring nations, who is going to buy American weapons? Connect the dots.
After the killing of Soleimani, Iran announced it was withdrawing from the deal, though Tehran promised to keep International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors in the country, hinting at its intentions of maintaining the scenario. Europeans, including France, Germany and England, announced that in the event of Iran announcing its withdrawal, they were compelled to trigger the dispute resolution mechanism set in the deal. That means that there are 65 days from the day Iran announced its withdrawal until a workable agreement would have to be created and sealed; otherwise, the United Nations Security Council sanctions would be reimposed on Iran. The clock has already started ticking. Europeans lied because Trump threatened to trigger that mechanism, but we will get to that later.
Trump announced withdrawing from the same deal in 2018 only because he didn't like the deal, or maybe because it didn't bear his name, or perhaps the cheese in his burger that evening wasn't smooth enough. Regardless of the reason behind the decision, when that was done, the Europeans had no qualms other than the mere lip service. Words like "persuade" and "convince" were used when the Europeans were trying to bring the U.S. back into the deal. However, when Iran pulled out after their important general was killed, the Europeans used different words, such as "warned." German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said, "We could no longer leave the increasing Iranian violations of the nuclear agreement unanswered." I wonder if he felt the same about the U.S. when Trump pulled out of the deal back in 2018.
Europeans are basically telling the Iranians they weren't able to give them effective relief from U.S. sanctions when Trump pulled out, but they sure can provide effective poisoning now that Iran has pulled out. Furthermore, President Trump has threatened Europe with triggering the mechanism that would lead to snapback sanctions on Iran. The threat that was secretly communicated to the Europeans was about imposing a 25% tariff on their automobiles if they didn't do what Washington wanted. The United States is no longer party to the deal but sure can pull the strings to do what no other member can.
Ironically, that threat, which would eventually lead to UNSC sanctions being reimposed on Iran, is a violation of the very treaty called for by the United Nations. Article 2(4) of the U.N. charter clearly forbids any nation from using threats against another sovereign nation. And more interestingly, the American threat is issued against sovereign nations that happen to be the members of the elite Security Council. A European official said, "We didn't want to look weak, so we agreed to keep the existence of the threat a secret."
Europeans would argue that this triggering of the mechanism is what the deal dictates. Fair enough. But what did they do when Iran fully complied and still did not get the relief that was promised them? Or should we rather ask: what could the Europeans do anyway? The lesson learned in Europe is this: if you become a party to a deal the U.S. wants, there is a good chance that you will lose your credibility because the U.S. could withdraw from that deal at a later stage. Furthermore, and more disturbingly, the other lesson they will learn is that far from hurting your credibility by not being able to take care of your end of the bargain in an international deal, you would be threatened with tariffs to break that deal. The message to Europe is simple: sanctions for Iran or tariffs for you, take your pick.
Iran and Europe are both wading in dangerous waters. When Iran stealthily violates sanctions imposed on it, it is called a rogue state or a destabilizing country. What should we call a bully of enemies and allies alike? Europeans basically said to Iran: we didn't want to do this, but we can either save you or we can save us – and we choose us. This is about survival, this is no longer about the law or morality. We want to sell our cars and make a profit.
People in the West refuse to purchase products when it is revealed that the products were made by forced labor under the worst human rights conditions. I wonder if Americans would refuse to purchase BMWs, Mercedes, Jaguars, Bentley and so forth because these luxury cars reached the American market facilitated by threats, coercion and pressure?
* Pakistan-based political analyst