The E3’s Post-JCPOA Role on Iran

Main Image Credit President Ebrahim Raisi arrives for his first press conference in Tehran on 21 June 2021 after winning the Iranian election. Courtesy of Ahmad Halabisaz/Alamy Live News

Whether or not Iran returns to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, or the nuclear deal) will be determined in Washington and Tehran, not Europe. If Iran does agree, however, the E3 (the UK, France and Germany) can play a crucial advocatory and supportive role in the expansion of the nuclear agreement into a broader regional framework for peace.

Negotiations in Vienna between the JCPOA signatories have been stuck since the sixth round of discussions ended inconclusively in June. Since then, several developments have damaged the prospects of a breakthrough: the election of President Ebrahim Raisi, a conservative regime-loyalist whose proposed cabinet is dominated by hardliners and Revolutionary Guard affiliates; Iranian attacks on tankers in the region’s vital oil channels; and the acceleration of Iran’s uranium enrichment programme towards weapons-grade material. Desperate attempts by the E3 and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to kickstart negotiations have only succeeded in preventing their total collapse, as demonstrated by the IAEA’s latest stop-gap nuclear surveillance deal agreed with Iran. The administration of Joe Biden has warned that its willingness to return to the deal cannot last forever, but for now this remains its intent. And so, the world waits to see whether Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will give Iran’s new negotiating team the green light to sign a deal.

This decision is an internal issue in Iran, subject to an ongoing debate over the merits of re-engaging with the Western-led international community, or committing fully to an isolationist ‘resistance economy’. The UK – which acts as a bloc alongside France and Germany on policy towards Iran – cannot influence Iran’s decision over the JCPOA. Even US attempts to persuade Iran to return to the deal by offering premature goodwill measures have fallen flat. Clearly, Iran will not be rushed by any external power.

If, however, Iran does sign a deal to restrict its nuclear programme, the focus must shift to building on this foundation to reach a regional agreement promoting lasting stability. This is where the E3 must come in as an active mediator with an autonomous Iran policy.

The possibility of history repeating itself is a key negotiating impasse. Iran worries about the prospect of a future US administration withdrawing and reinstating sanctions once more, as former President Donald Trump did. This is not an irrational fear, and has prompted Iran to make a US guarantee of non-withdrawal a key negotiating demand. The US, however, will never realistically agree to bind itself indefinitely. How to ensure the sustainability of a just and transparent nuclear deal at the second time of asking remains an integral conundrum.

A ‘more for more’ agreement has been proposed by the US to resolve this issue, tying sanctions relief to the extension of limitations on Iran’s nuclear programme to include its regional aggression and missile and drone programmes. Iran has repeatedly stonewalled this idea, viewing these policies as guarantors of national security in a hostile regional environment. The Islamic Republic’s increasingly hard-line revolutionary nature will only calcify this resistance. Nevertheless, without the establishment of a broader de-escalatory framework, the nuclear deal will remain fragile, and hostilities with Iran will endure.

Herein lies the catch-22 of the Iran issue: a regional stabilisation agreement is needed to develop trust between Iran and its adversaries, but no such framework can be initiated without trust. On its own, the JCPOA will never guarantee a cessation of hostilities with Iran. Only an influential and objective outside mediator can break this paradox and initiate a virtuous cycle that results in a lasting understanding with Iran.

The E3 is suitable for the role. It has experience on the Iran issue through its involvement in nuclear discussions since the 2000s, and retained a degree of neutrality by not joining the Trump administration’s reimposition of sanctions. Meanwhile, the EU’s naval peacekeeping mission – European Maritime Awareness in the Strait of Hormuz (EMASOH) – although small in scale, has won praise and confidence from other regional states for its benign objectivity. This will stand the E3 in good stead when it comes to impressing upon Iran’s neighbours the need to broaden the scope of the JCPOA into a region-wide framework.

Still, this will not be an easy task. Iran has frequently demanded the exclusion of the West from regional dialogue. This call has come from across the political spectrum, including the relatively dovish former foreign minister, Javad Zarif, suggesting it is not just the blustering rhetoric of hardliners. Meanwhile, Iran’s regional adversaries are far from eager to seek a rapprochement with Tehran at present. Israeli sources recently revealed that a fissure is growing within the establishment over whether to shift from diplomatic to stronger military responses to Iranian aggression. This year’s string of covert Saudi–Iranian talks brokered in Baghdad seems to have fizzled out in light of Tehran’s recent regional provocations.

Nonetheless, the E3 should advocate and nurture a cross-regional diplomatic process. The recent Baghdad conference provided an opportunity for senior officials from all regional powers to meet in-person, and the E3 should encourage full participation in such initiatives to ensure their credibility. With Raisi also reportedly deciding whether to continue the dialogue with Riyadh, these endeavours could set a precedent for regular regional discussions and, eventually, the establishment of dialogue channels, a crucial vehicle for de-escalation.

Iran’s regional disruption is often identified and condemned. But Tehran has also shown a desire to cooperate with its neighbours on multiple occasions. In 2019, Iran proposed the Hormuz Peace Endeavour, a regional framework for peace. The Gulf states gave short shrift to the idea, as Iran’s call for the expulsion of the US military from the region was shut down by Washington’s allies. Yet such efforts demonstrate that Iran possesses at least a base-level will to work constructively. The E3 should highlight the common goals of historical and present attempts to initiate a peace process as – if such an endeavour is ever to succeed in the Middle East – shared interests and affinity must trump rivalry and antipathy.

The return to the nuclear deal has proved an arduous process, and the subsequent quest for a regional framework will be even harder. But lasting stability and peace ultimately depend on it. If and when the US and Iran come to an agreement, the E3 must emerge as a strong force driving this process forward.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Marcus Solarz Hendriks

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Dr Tobias Borck

Research Fellow for Middle East Security Studies

International Security Studies

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