The EU has often been praised for its contribution on the outcome of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which was endorsed by the UN Security Council Resolution 2231 showing that a significant amount of trust existed amongst each signatory and the international community.
Although the JCPOA agreement was far from perfect, its purpose was founded on the idea that it had to focus on Iran’s nuclear issue. It is only when those confidence-building measures are accomplished that Tehran and the international community can address issues related to regional security, human rights and other pillars that go beyond the nuclear question.
Since the takeover of the Trump administration, the political decision to withdraw from the JCPOA was officially made in May 2018 when the U.S decided to reinstate nuclear sanctions towards the Iranian regime. Such a move would have strong repercussions across the European political sphere particularly within the E3 framework (France, Germany and the U.K) which remained heavily invested since 2003 to occupy a major role in the global non-proliferation regime.
The US narrative would further be reinforced when the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo enacted his maximum pressure campaign towards Iran. Accordingly, US-Iran tensions were based on the conduction of nuclear enrichment and the latter’s refusal to abide by IAEA and UNSC resolutions. This time, the campaign entirely focuses on the shortfalls of the JCPOA, since the Trump administration was concerned with Regional security matters, and Israel’s sovereignty in light of the post-JCPOA-era.
There have been hopes that the new Biden administration would pursue a strategic approach as opposed to its predecessor. Prioritizing diplomacy over a maximum pressure campaign certainly proves to be beneficial for all parties involved. Yet, it is still unclear whether the new US administration will reassess its sanctions policy towards Iran. This comes at a time, where Iran recently stated that it will resume its uranium enrichment activities of up to 20% in one of its underground enrichment facilities located at Fordow.
Once again, the EU finds itself at a crossroad between two sides that are still recovering from the previous political decisions brought by the Trump administration. During this period, Europeans have attempted to preserve what is left of the JCPOA by attempting to keep all parties under the same negotiating table. The key question is whether the EU will attempt to reinforce the transatlantic bond or pursue its autonomous strategy towards Iran that it has tried to establish since the US unilaterally pulled out from the JCPOA.
Mitigating the impact of US extraterritorial sanctions towards Iran is not an easy task since the US dollar has such an important weight over the international financial system. EU businesses represent an important destination for foreign direct investment (FDI) towards Iran. The threat of US sanctions means that the economic and reputational costs to operate in Iran’s domestic markets are simply too high to cope with.
The updated EU Blocking Statute attempted to address those issues since it allowed EU operators to recover the financial damages that occurred from US extraterritorial sanctions. While those intentions may be hard to achieve, it showed the EU’s capacity to think on the long run since those mechanisms have an indirect effect on the informal rules of global economic governance.
Furthermore, there have been signals that the European Commission is prepared to strengthen the international role of the Euro so that it could further enhance the implementation and enforcement of its own sanction’s mechanism. The approach adopted by the EU shows that it is being clear that the current US sanctions policy has caused great damage towards Iran, which has negatively impacted Europe’s willingness to prioritize nuclear diplomacy over political conflict.
There is a clear opportunity for both sides to return to full compliance, and it is expected that the Biden administration will reassess its sanctions policy towards Iran since it is an essential condition for the full re-implementation of the JCPOA. The interests of the US and the EU are almost identical when it comes to preserving the nature of nuclear diplomacy and both sides have already managed to overcome their differences back in the post 9/11 era on how to handle Iran’s nuclear dossier.
A starting point for the E3/EU should call upon the Biden administration to rejoin the JCPOA by proposing a new diplomatic track on how to ease the sanctions that have been brought upon Iran since 2018. Inevitably, a strong transatlantic relationship will pressurize Iran to re-abide by its IAEA obligations and reverse its nuclear activities so that it could regain its status as a trustworthy partner in the global non-proliferation regime