When Iran announced in January that it would further “reduce” its commitments under the 2015 deal limiting its nuclear activities, it was not responding to the United States’ assassination of Iranian Quds Force leader Gen. Qassem Suleimani a few days earlier. But both developments reflected the escalating confrontation between Iran and the US since the summer of 2019. Any effort to safeguard the substance of the 2015 deal -- formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA -- must take this context into consideration.
The Iranian regime declared that with this “fifth and final” phase of scaling back its commitments under the JCPOA, it would no longer feel bound by the deal’s agreed upper limits on centrifuges and uranium enrichment. At the same time, Iran said that this move, as well as its previous phased commitment reductions, is reversible, and that the authorities would not restrict inspections of the country’s nuclear installations by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
But European governments say that Iran’s latest step constitutes a grave violation of the deal. Having warned Iran after its previous round of commitment reductions in November 2019, the “E3” -- Germany, France, and the United Kingdom -- have now triggered the JCPOA’s dispute-resolution mechanism, which is designed to deal with possible breaches of the agreement.
Under the DRM, the agreement’s remaining signatories following the withdrawal of the US in 2018 -- the E3, Russia, China, and Iran -- have at least 30 days to resolve the dispute among themselves. If they fail to agree on either a substantive solution or an extension of this deadline, then any of the signatories may bring the dispute to the United Nations Security Council.
That body would then have a month to vote on a resolution to extend the suspension of international sanctions against Iran that took effect when the JCPOA entered into force in 2016. Without such a resolution, the old sanctions would automatically “snap back” into place. And, because US President Donald Trump’s administration would certainly use its veto to block such a resolution, bringing a dispute to the Security Council would be a death sentence for the JCPOA.
This doesn’t have to happen, if the E3, Russia, China, Iran, and the European Union -- which acts as a notary of sorts to the agreement -- use the DRM for its intended purpose. None of them wants to lay the JCPOA to rest. But it is unclear whether the deal can be rescued before November’s US presidential election; and it almost certainly would not survive a second Trump term.
This realization underpins the slowly emerging consensus, not only among the agreement’s European signatories, that a post-JCPOA arrangement needs to be considered. Although UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has called for a “Trump deal” with Iran, the E3 leaders have jointly spoken of the need to define a “long-term framework for Iran’s nuclear program.”
Counterintuitive as it may seem, current regional dynamics could provide an opportunity for constructive talks on such a framework. The strategic escalation since last summer, in particular Iran’s attacks in September on Saudi Arabian oil facilities and Suleimani’s assassination in January, has shown how close the region may be to a -- probably uncontrollable -- military confrontation. As a result, Gulf states that earlier had encouraged Trump to take a hard-line stance against Iran have called explicitly for de-escalation. In addition, various parties that had not been on speaking terms began to talk, or at least prepared to do so: the United Arab Emirates to Iran, the Saudis to Yemen’s Houthis and to Qatar, and the Saudis and Iranians -- through third parties -- to each other.
At the time of last August’s G-7 summit in Biarritz, France, even Trump and the Iranian regime seemed prepared for some form of diplomatic engagement. Although hard-liners in Tehran and Washington prevented further progress, the “Swiss track” subsequently led to a prisoner exchange between Iran and the US, demonstrating that, with help from friends or partners, basic bilateral understandings are possible. Trump even thanked Iran “on a very fair negotiation” and called it a “precursor to what can be done.”
European governments should continue trying to facilitate serious, direct talks between the US and Iran. At the same time, they should use the DRM both to discuss immediate de-escalation measures and to explore the contours of a follow-up agreement to the JCPOA -- or an alternative should the current deal collapse.
Such discussions should address how to realize the French proposal, originally endorsed by Trump, of a European credit line to help ease Iran’s economic distress, as well as how to overcome current US resistance to the idea. Iran could support such a move by reinstating some of its recently “reduced” commitments.
More far-reaching talks could focus on timelines and provisions for future voluntary limitations on Iran’s nuclear activities once the JCPOA’s “sunset clauses” expire. Eventually, the US would have to be part of any new agreement, and Iran would need guarantees that a future US administration would not revoke it. Securing congressional approval -- which the Obama administration did not seek for the JCPOA -- would strengthen such an agreement. This would require addressing major concerns of US legislators, such as the longevity of Iran’s commitments, which Iranian officials have indicated they are open to discussing if certain other conditions, notably an “economic cease-fire,” were met.
That said, any future deal with Iran should still be an arms-control agreement that is not overburdened with other contentious matters. Issues regarding sovereignty, security, and safety, such as the use and arming of militant proxies, missile proliferation, or the safety of waterways, would be best addressed in a regional context.
Given the recent interest of most regional actors in de-escalating tensions, now may be the right time to go beyond bilateral talks and initiate a regional Conference on Confidence-Building, Security, and Cooperation. Such a process would complement renewed and probably lengthy nuclear negotiations between Iran and the major international powers.
Volker Perthes is chairman and director of Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Berlin. -- Ed.