(Persia Digest) - EU ministers discuss pact as Washington and Tehran stick to hard lines.
Rym Momtaz writes in Politico that the EU's foreign policy chief played down Tehran’s breaches of the Iran nuclear deal on Monday, but admitted the pact was facing its most difficult moment since it was signed in 2015.
Iran has ratcheted up pressure in recent weeks with calibrated violations of the deal — known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — breaching limits on uranium stockpiling and enrichment. But the EU's foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said that currently, none of the other parties to the agreement feel the breaches are "significant" enough to trigger the pact's dispute resolution mechanism.
"The dispute resolution mechanism is the mechanism foreseen in case of significant non-compliance. For the time being, none of the parties to the agreement has signaled their intention to invoke this article," Mogherini told reporters at the end of a daylong meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels.
"Conditions are very complicated, more complicated and difficult than ever, it is probably the most difficult moment since ," Mogherini added.
The meeting in Brussels came after a week of intensified European diplomatic efforts, led by France, to try to convince Iran to pause its breaches of the deal and persuade the U.S. to pause further sanctions on Tehran. So far, neither Tehran nor Washington has shown any signs of softening, but France has vowed to continue its diplomatic efforts.
“The dynamic we created over the past few weeks, I think, prevented the worst … triggered new language yesterday from the European side and allowed a constant dialogue with the Americans,” French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters while on a visit to Serbia Monday. “So in these difficult conditions, we are going to pursue our work.”
Macron also announced he would be speaking with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as well as U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin over the coming week.
The leaders of France, Germany and the U.K. — the leading European powers behind the deal, known as the E3 — had hinted in a joint statement Sunday that they could trigger the pact's dispute resolution mechanism over Iran's breaches.
"While we continue to support the JCPoA, its continuation is contingent on Iran’s full compliance, and we strongly urge Iran to reverse its recent decisions in this regard. We will continue to explore the avenues of dialogue foreseen under the agreement to address Iran’s compliance, including through the Joint Commission of the JCPoA," the leaders said.
If the dispute resolution mechanism is triggered, and doesn't resolve matters within the agreed timeframes, that would lead to a reimposition of sanctions by the U.N. Security Council, an escalation the E3 have so far been anxious to avoid.
European powers have been trying to preserve the nuclear deal ever since President Donald Trump pulled the United States out last year and reimposed crippling economic sanctions on Tehran. The deal — still backed by the EU, France, Germany, the U.K., Russia and China — promised Iran relief from sanctions in return for accepting measures designed to stop the development of nuclear weapons.
European leaders have expressed concern that increased tensions between Tehran and Washington could lead to a military conflict that would set the entire Middle East ablaze. But their efforts to calm the dispute have hit significant roadblocks.
After refraining from such criticism during the visit of French President Emmanuel Macron's top diplomatic adviser, Emmanuel Bonne, last week, Iran reverted to its attempts to pressure the EU to do more economically to preserve the deal.
"The Europeans claim they’re willing to preserve the JCPOA, but we haven’t yet seen their readiness to invest for preserving the deal. There’s great difference between expressing willingness and readiness to invest," Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told reporters Sunday upon arriving in New York for a United Nations Economic and Social Council meeting, according to Iranian media.
But European leaders have been clear that it is not their obligation under the JCPOA to compensate Iran for the U.S. sanctions, nor is it within Europe’s capacity.
“We know that all our activities would not compensate … Our intention is to try to mitigate the impact of the U.S. decision to reimpose sanctions and leave the agreement,” Mogherini told reporters.
The E3 and the EU set up an alternative transaction system, known as Instex, to allow the trade of food and medicine to continue with Iran after the U.S. reimposed sanctions. It took almost a year to establish and render operational, but Mogherini confirmed Monday that “the first transactions are being processed.”
Iran's breaches are "a bad reaction to a bad decision — the American decision to withdraw from the agreement and to impose sanctions," French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told reporters as he arrived at the meeting in Brussels.
Le Drian also called for Europeans to stay united on the Iran issue.
British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt insisted Monday ahead of the meeting that the deal "isn't dead yet ... there is still some closing but small window to keep the deal alive."
An Elysée official acknowledged European countries face a hard task in trying to get Tehran and Washington to row back from their current entrenched positions.
"The parameters of a return to negotiation are difficult to put in place ... [we] told [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani what the parameters of a pause might be but as you know, the Iranian starting point is quite a way off — they are demanding the immediate lifting of all U.S. sanctions," the official said.
Iranian officials reacted positively to Bonne's visit, though they neither agreed nor disagreed to taking steps toward de-escalation, and maintained they would oppose American maximal pressure with a policy of "maximal resistance," the official said.
While Bonne was meeting with Rouhani, Trump tweeted that, "Sanctions will soon be increased, substantially!"
The U.S. has maintained that the JCPOA fell short because it did not address ways to contain Iran's military activities in the Arab world. American officials have insisted any future renegotiation should include that element, in addition to the nuclear program.
European officials have countered that they share American concerns about Iran's role in the Middle East but that the JCPOA at least dealt with one major threat that Iran could pose, and helped keep the whole region free of nuclear weapons.
"The thing that we agree with the Americans on is that the long-term solutions to the tensions in the Middle East is an Iran which ceases the destabilizing activity that happens in Iraq, in Syria, in Lebanon, in Yemen and that is the root cause of the problems. We have a different view as to how we keep the region denuclearized," Hunt told reporters in Brussels on Monday.
Macron said in Serbia that the “essential thing today is to save the nuclear deal and create conditions for a useful dialogue with Iran, not only on the nuclear issue, but also on regional and ballistic issues.”