“The worst deal ever” or “a historic accomplishment”? The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed in Vienna in 2015 is as controversial as Donald Trump’s unilateral decision to withdraw from it. He on his behalf diminishes the deal entirely, while the rest of the signatories praise the nuclear agreement as a diplomatic victory.
An Interview with Anne-Kathrin Glück and Benedikt van den Woldenberg
It took Javad Zarif a few visits to make sure that the JCPoA remains intact after Trump announced on 8th May that the US will withdraw from the agreement and impose sanctions against Iran. The Iranian foreign minister then met with his colleagues from China, Russia, Germany, France and the UK to save the deal. After joining the EU High Representative Federica Mogherini in Brussels, all signatories minus one seemed keen to hold on to the JCPoA stressing the importance for world peace and economic prosperity. Today, a joint commission met in Vienna to guarantee the implementation of the deal. The media outrage and negative comments aside, why do the remaining partners appear more confident than ever about the success of the agreement?
AK: EU trade interests and good diplomatic relations with Iran are the reason why the European Commission will protect European businesses from US sanctions and activate the blocking statute before the sanctions take effect. Is that a bold move concerning the recent tensions between the US and the EU?
Ben: It certainly stresses the seriousness of the current situation. Faced with an administration in Washington that works against multilateral achievements on different fronts, the EU has repeatedly – and rightfully so – stated its intention to ensure the JCPoA’s survival. That won’t be easy, however. Overall, the US has put the EU on a spot, seemingly forcing it to decide between two options that appear mutually exclusive: fighting for the JCPoA on the one side and maintaining transatlantic cooperation on the other. The way the JCPoA came into being, its raison d’être, showcases the convergence between EU and US interest: making sure that Iran does not acquire or develop nuclear technology for military use. At the moment, the approaches of confrontation in Washington and cooperation in Brussels seem incompatible.
The blocking statutes are a mechanism that boils down to prohibiting European companies from abiding by the US sanctions regime and recognising any ruling on the matter by US courts. This approach was developed and put in place in the 1990s to deal with US sanctions against Cuba, Iran and Libya, but was not implemented because the pressure it brought to the table was enough to find a diplomatic solution. In the current climate, both this effect of playing it as a card and the realistic ability of the EU to effectively protect its companies in an interdependent world are questionable.
AK: After Trump announced the US withdrawal, the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met with the foreign ministers of China and Russia in order to preserve the agreement. Do you think that US sanctions against Iran may pressure China to withdraw also?
Ben: China had become, particularly during the pre-JCPoA sanctions regime a key trading partner and investor in Iran. At the same time, Chinese companies have close ties to the US market and its players, which brings Beijing into the same dilemma that the EU is in. But China also has significant economic bargaining power vis-à-vis the US, a vested interest in regional stability in its western neighbourhood and the persistence of the international non-proliferation regime. Overall, Beijing favors a rules-based international order and also sees great value in the United Nations and comparable multilateral institutions, which makes it less likely to just give in to unilateral demands from Washington.
AK: You wrote in our Polis-Paper #7 that Trump accused Iran of violating the agreement although the IAEA never confirmed any violations such as supporting terrorist groups and refusing to work with international inspection authorities. Why was Trump so determined to finally exit the deal?
Ben: There are different factors and explanations across the commentaries. At the end of the day, no one but Donald Trump knows the exact reason. But the insight he has given through speeches and comments hints that it was a combination of a high degree of scepticism vis-à-vis Iran – which is deeply rooted among decision makers in Washington – and disrespect for a rules-based international order in which laws, agreements and contracts score off the law of the strongest. Lastly, this is not the first achievement of the Obama years revoked by Trump.
Another factor might be Iran’s growing regional ambitions and the policies it has taken over the past years. (Geo-)Political aspects were deliberately put aside when negotiating the JCPoA. In all likelihood they would have been a deal breaker to begin with, but the strength of the agreement was its technical depth rather than potentially vague language of a political plan. At the end of the day, however, this brings us back to the dichotomy I mentioned earlier: cooperation vs. confrontation. Berlin and Brussels are no fans of Iran’s regional policy either, but they see the JCPoA (aside from its obvious benefits of effectively preventing nuclear proliferation) as a trust building exercise so that other issues can be discussed in the near future. Withdrawing from the deal would mean closing this door.
Ben studied political science with focus on the Middle East in Erlangen, Damascus, Beirut, Leiden and Montréal. His main interests are the international relations of the MENA region, democratisation and authoritarian resilience, and means of citizen participation. At Polis180, Ben is an editor of the Polis Blog and active in the peace & security programme.
The Polis Blog serves as a platform at the disposal of Polis180’s members. Published comments express solely the authors’ opinions and shall not be confounded with the opinions of the editors or of Polis180.