Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 25 August 2019

Analysis: Iran's limited withdrawal from JCPOA is a warning shot to Europe

Iran made the move exactly one year after President Donald Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, right, listens to his Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif prior to a meeting in Tehran, Iran, 2015. AP Photo
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, right, listens to his Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif prior to a meeting in Tehran, Iran, 2015. AP Photo

On May 8, 2018, Donald Trump announced the American withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal the US had brokered just three years before. On the same day, one year later, Iran said it too was withdrawing from some elements of the deal.

The past 12 months have been a dizzying display of the power of US economic measures. Acting more or less unilaterally, Washington has forced most of the world to drop lucrative trade deals, cut crucial supplies of crude and turn its back on a nuclear agreement toasted just a few years ago as a triumph of diplomacy.

Iran has been largely powerless to stop it.

The Islamic Republic is in an impossible position. In 2015, President Hassan Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Zarif took a gamble to trust the West. If right, they would bring an economic transformation and open up Iranian society in a way largely not seen since the Islamic Revolution 40 years ago. If they failed? Well, it was a gamble because it came with high stakes.

Before the deal was done, conservatives in Iran were grumbling about the "untrustworthiness" of America and the risks of making the situation worse. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made his concerns clear too but he stood back to let the reforming Mr Rouhani give it a go — in the end, the president was either cementing his success or digging his own grave.

Mr Trump’s move in 2018 blew a hole through the 2015 deal, making it unlikely Mr Rouhani would be able to convince those back home to let him try a second agreement, and especially not the one that Mr Trump wants, covering nuclear development, regional interference, armed proxies and ballistic missiles.

So, Mr Rouhani looked to the EU. Brussels has made it clear it doesn't agree with Mr Trump and still thinks the JCPOA was a good deal. Europe sought to build a mechanism to allow firms outside the US to trade with Iran while being isolated from the American financial system and therefore avoid sanctions.

But dodging Washington’s wrath isn’t that easy. For global corporations it was a stark choice — do business with America or do business with Iran, but not both. No one decided to close up their US operations.

Tired of waiting for Brussels, Iran on Wednesday said enough.

Mr Zarif’s announcement is key.

Firstly, Iranian policy is often communicated in symbolism and metaphor. But on Wednesday, the message was clear.

Iran is not, like the US, pulling out all at once. Instead, it is firing a warning shot at Europe: make this work for us or we walk. Mr Zarif says the EU and other JCPOA signatories are on notice to find a way through this situation or further withdrawal will take place.

Mr Zarif’s decision to speak from Moscow is also a clear signal. Russian President Vladimir Putin has been playing his limited hand with finesse on the diplomatic stage in recent years. He is the man with the most power to dictate any peace process in war-torn Syria — where he’s also an active participant in the country’s suffering — and increasingly he is building friendships, from Turkey to Libya to Tehran.

The Russian relationship with Iran was forged in the fire of the Syrian war and while the countries have vied for influence and control on the ground, the two are still close.

Choosing Moscow, Mr Zarif is telling Washington that it can go elsewhere to find a broker. It’s also a warning to Europe that if Brussels doesn’t act fast, it could be cut out of the conversation.

Updated: May 8, 2019 03:00 PM

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