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The talk of the town in Tehran: Can the Europeans deliver?

The talk of the town in Tehran: Can the Europeans deliver?
Dr Tarja Cronberg, author, in conversation with Ambassador Mahmoud Barimani, head of the Iranian Foreign Ministry's Europe department

Dr Tarja Cronberg, SIPRI Associate Fellow and the author of ‘Nuclear Multilateralism and Iran: Inside EU Negotiations’ has revisited Tehran to meet with Iranian high-level officials and the EU, Chinese and Russian ambassadors to Tehran. Her ‘Tehran interviews form the background for this blog at a critical juncture for the Iran nuclear deal.

The atmosphere in Tehran is tense. President Donald J. Trump has called the 2015 Iran nuclear deal the ‘worst deal ever’ and wants it to be renegotiated. The other partners to the deal: Europe, China and Russia strongly disagree. They support the accord which—after 12 years of negotiations—limits Iran’s nuclear program and prohibits access to nuclear weapons. May 12 is the looming deadline that Trump has threatened to refuse to extend a suspension of US sanctions on Iran if the deal is not ‘fixed’.

Despite these demands, the Europeans have refused any renegotiations and are hopeful to find a compromise that will save the deal. But why only the Europeans? While the US and Europe compromise, three of the original partners, Iran, China and Russia, have been side-lined and must place their trust in the Europeans. Instead, France, the United Kingdom and Germany (the E3) have now taken the responsibility for safeguarding the deal.


Saving the deal

The most urgent question in Tehran is: Can the Europeans deliver? Iran wants concrete guarantees that the deal will remain and that the Europeans will publicly defend the deal. There are also commercial interests at stake. In exchange for restricting its nuclear programme, Iran expected economic cooperation with Europe. However, bigger European banks and firms have not engaged with Iran out of fear of US sanctions and related penalties.

In an attempt to appease Trump but not to renegotiate the deal, the E3 proposed sanctions on Iranian commanders and militias fighting in Syria. So far, this proposal has failed. Italy and Austria were opposed fearing both radical empowerment in Iran and that it would set a precedent for additional demands from Trump. Furthermore, the Europeans are hesitant to approve blocking regulations that would protect European firms engaging with Iran against US sanctions. These might backfire on European firms working in the US. If companies are forced to choose between being able to use the financial structures of the US or engaging with Iran, there is in fact, no choice. 

Nevertheless,  the greatest hindrance for a solution may be the lack of a unified position from the E3. With the EU on the side-lines, Prime minister Theresa May, President Emmanuel Macron and Chancellor Angela Merkel are building rapport with the US independently. This week, Macron and Merkel will visit the White House—separately. There is a fear in Tehran, that the E3 does not have courage to confront the US and will appease president Trump. As the UK is leaving the EU, ties with the US is a key priority. Macron is building his special relation to the US president and Merkel has become politically weaker after the last German elections.


The ‘outsiders’

The other partners, Russia and China, support the deal and are opposed to any renegotiations. Seemingly, they are less worried by US penalties and instead are increasing their cooperation with Iran. For instance, China already dominates Iran’s consumer markets. Meanwhile, Russia is creating a free market area with Iran under the Eurasian Economic Union and looking at Iran as a market for its military hardware and nuclear power.  Both China and Russia are able to avoid transactions in US dollars and therefore not as sensitive to US sanctions as the Europeans.

The government of Iran wants the deal to survive. If the Iran deal unravels, the hardliners will be politically strengthened. They have strongly opposed the deal, but mostly because in his first presidential campaign, President Hassan Rouhani’s promised to solve the economic problems. The lack of economic benefits has been a way to mobilize against the government.  Even the hardliners are, today, not threatening to build nuclear weapons. Iran is a committed non-nuclear member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and according to the agreement will remain so. Nevertheless, in Tehran, there is increasingly talk about leaving the NPT. Not to build nuclear weapons but protest against the deals limitations to its nuclear program. On 9 April, the National Nuclear Technology Day, Rouhani even uttered a veiled threat:  if need be Iran could restart its uranium enrichment in four days to 20% level.

There are only three weeks until May 12. The Europeans are actively searching for a feasible approach to satisfy both Trump and the deal partners. Maybe there is just a need for more time? Maybe Macron and Merkel’s visits to the White House will prove fruitful? The Iranian foreign minister is traveling in the US and mobilizing support.  There is still hope. Or as pointed out by one of the EU ambassadors in Tehran: ‘Maybe there will be a surprise. The US president is known to enjoy surprising the world’. Or as summarized by another: ‘Not everybody has to win. Everybody could also be equally unsatisfied’.


Dr Tarja Cronberg is a Distinguished Associate Fellow within SIPRI’s Armament and Disarmament​​​​​​​ research area.