In international affairs, a signature is all that it takes to alter scenarios: Donald Trump’s alone undercut the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – accord on the nuclear programme of Iran endorsed in 2015 by the Islamic Republic itself and the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany and the European Union. In May 2018, the President of the United States pulled out of the deal that Barack Obama undersigned alongside the world’s leading powers to address Iranian efforts at developing nuclear self-sufficiency.
The accord of Vienna marked the (temporary) settlement of Iran’s nuclear venture dating back to Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace nuclear cooperation project. At the turn of the century, it was rumoured that Iran’s civil nuclear programme concealed the assemblage of nuclear weapons. The initial compromise with France, Germany and the UK (EU3) faltered amid intensifying statements on the enrichment of uranium by the Iranian President Ahmadinejad: the UNSC intervened with heavy sanctions which, over the years, added to unilateral sanctions primarily aimed at financial and resource transactions involving Teheran. The sanctions curbed the assertiveness of Iran and led the moderate President Rouhani to espouse Obama’s multilateralism in July 2015. Pursuant to the JCPOA, the Islamic Republic must only employ nuclear energy for civilian purposes (like any other non-nuclear signatory of the Non Proliferation Treaty) and allow continuous monitoring of compliance on its territory by the International Atomic Energy Agency. In exchange for the fulfilment of these commitments, unilateral and multilateral sanctions were lifted. However, three years after the implementation of the deal, President Trump accused Iran of disregarding its duties under the agreement and abruptly withdrew US support. To date, the remaining parties to the JCPOA pledge not to emulate their American counterpart.
Falling within the global redefinition of power dynamics, the nuclear-deal issue reflects the relevance of Iran’s geopolitical attributes and interventionist stance in neighbouring theatres like Syria and Yemen. Iran strategically adjoins macro-regions, has direct access to the bountiful Caspian Sea and control of the Strait of Hormuz which governs the distribution of resources originating from the Persian Gulf; it features large reserves of oil and, more importantly, a massive concentration of natural gas. Furthermore, the populous State is the regional representative of Shia Islam and its prominence in the Middle East cannot be overstated. Well aware of these unique characteristics, President Trump exploited precisely the JCPOA to champion his mounting unilateralism, brandishing the rogue-state propaganda vis-à-vis Teheran that was popular in the pre-Obama era. On the other hand, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini currently stresses the economic gains of the deal – in the face of the Islamic Republic’s poor human rights record – in order to forestall its disintegration.
Speaking at the 2018 Iran Summit of the “United Against Nuclear Iran” organisation in New York, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo convincedly condemned the European plan to set up an alternative financial channel linking the remaining parties to the JCPOA. The “Special Purpose Vehicle” announced by Federica Mogherini would practically operate as an umbrella for European and international traders against the extraterritorial effects of US secondary sanctions and therefore weaken the economic and security might of the American giant. Pompeo censured this transnational endeavour in favour of the Iranian “outlaw state”, as Washington’s verbal and political animosity towards Teheran escalates. In September 2018, the US Department of State released a report emphasising old and new violations committed by the Islamic Republic such as military and cybernetic terrorism, environmental abuse and serious infringement of human rights. The discursive purpose of the report was to accentuate the abnormality of Iran thus justify Trump’s decision to discard the agreement. In the view of the Trump administration, the sponsorship of terrorism and suppression of fundamental freedoms by the regime of the Ayatollah require commensurate responses rather than negotiation and conciliation.
Conversely, the European Union takes the view that pragmatism must inform the actions of the international community: being the prevention of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East the underlying policy priority, the JCPOA must be preserved for the greater good of stability. In addition to the security benefit, Federica Mogherini argued that the Iran deal is the door to an ongoing dialogue susceptible on the long run to impact matters beyond that of nuclear weapons, like the enforcement of human rights inside Iran and the participation of the Islamic Republic and its ancillary groups in regional conflicts.
Judging by their official discourse, the United States and the European Union both sponsor and uphold the rule of law but the former seeks to impose it through unilateralism whereas the latter points to global rules and institutions. Short of the American guidance, Brussels struggles to keep the multilateral system together and is determined to avoid that economic hardship for its most prominent companies further destabilises the Union. The EU is hence working to create a network independent from Washington which could become a model for future transactions lacking the intercession of the dollar or the military contribution of the US. Notwithstanding the reasonable rationale underpinning its foreign policy with respect to Iran, Brussels is said to neglect the condition of the Iranian people who increasingly take to the streets against the deficient religious regime. On the contrary, that of “regime change” is possibly Trump’s objective regarding Teheran, given that the eradication of the current political establishment could simultaneously improve the lives of Iranians and remove a cumbersome antagonist of the US in the Middle East.
In sum, recent developments revealed the complementary agendas for Iran of the two pillars of the West: the European Union prioritises economic exchanges and international cooperation to gain stability and order in return; the United States embraces decisiveness to counter a rogue state disrupting the Middle East and mistreating its own people. The Iran deal – its tortuous conception, the 2015 breakthrough, the rule-based implementation, Trump’s withdrawal and the audacious attempts of the EU at keeping it afloat – epitomises current international relations characterised by growing uncertainty and readjustment of global equilibria. In between US disengagement and EU conservatism, while Russia and China tend to their own plans, an interventionist regime and the future of its population rest on the exacerbation of sanctions or their containment.