Talks on Reviving the JCPOA: Moving from Distrust to Trust?

All parties to the JCPOA (China, France, Germany, Iran, Russia, United Kingdom and the USA) support in principle a revival of the JCPOA. All would benefit. The fear of nuclear proliferation would be stopped and economic relations especially of the European countries with Iran (trade and investment) would improve.

The resumption of the talks is the attempt to return to the pre-Trump situation. The JCPOA until President Trump’s withdrawal worked well. If there will be no JCPOA it will be a return to the pre-JCPOA situation. This would mean suspicions about Iran’s nuclear program and military threats against Iran between 2010 and 2015. If there will be no diplomatic solution, US-President Biden and Israel’s Prime Minister announced a potential military option. This would destabilize the whole region. All would lose. The revival of the JCPOA can avoid this situation.

US-President Donald Trump and Israel’s Prime-Minister Benjamin Netanjahu called the JCPOA the “worst deal ever”. A revival would prove them wrong. This is why opponents of the JCPOA are trying to introduce time and again requests that are not related to the JCPOA, like Iran’s missile program or its regional “behavior”. There is no arms control agreement in history that includes “behavior” or singles out only the missiles of one country. These requests would terminate the JCPOA. These issues can best addressed in different regional fora, involving all actors of the region, not only Iran.

In many ways the target of the opponents of the JCPOA is not primarily the nuclear program but Iran itself. The best response to these arguments would be a working JCPOA.

Iran has announced that it will only continue result-oriented negotiations and is not going to continue talks for talks. Definitively, the talks have to be “result-oriented”. The new Iranian formula “action for action” is not that far away from the US-formula “compliance for compliance”. The US will not remove “all sanctions” before Iran also takes steps itself, however. It will want to keep some leverage.

Much has been achieved in the six rounds of talks from April until June. The US-delegation conceded to lift about thousand nuclear related sanctions with impact on Iranian economy. This relief would be sufficient to give Iranian economy a big boost. If this not enough for Iran and it requests that “all sanctions” should be lifted, is not only a matter of economy but also a matter of pride and dignity.

The US and the European parties will want that Iran takes simultaneous steps to roll back it nuclear advancements to the 2015 level (uranium enrichment level, enriched uranium stockpiles, modern centrifuges). The implementation needs not be done by “talk-for-talk” or step by step. It can be done with timeframe packages or packages with certain commitments. No one has to take the first step. The packages can be implemented at the same time or one after the other once both sides have met their commitments of the previous packages.

Iran’s wish to get guarantees, that the next US-president will not leave an agreement again, is understandable. Unless there would be a two-third majority in the US-Congress a president cannot give these guarantees. President Biden should give these guarantees at least for his remaining presidency, what he has not done so, yet. He could do so with presidential directives.

Iran could use the remaining time after the possible revival of the JCPOA to conclude contracts with companies that last beyond the next US-presidency. The longer the talks drag on the more time Iran loses to negotiate these contracts. It is not very likely that a next US-President will be able or even willing to terminate these contracts.

During the Trump era Europe was pretty silent about Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA. After all, it was a blow against the multilateralism, which Europe holds so dear. Also, it was a violation of international law since the JCPOA is based on the UN-Security Council Resolution 2231. European companies were afraid of the US secondary sanctions if they do business with Iran.

Europeans were not entirely inactive, however. They founded the INSTEX-mechanism which should create the opportunity to bypass US-sanctions. Unfortunately, it was hardly used by the European companies. The “blocking statute”, according to which European companies would have to pay a fine if they abide by US-exterritorial sanctions, has not been applied.

After all, the EU recognized its responsibility since it chairs the Joint Commission of the JCPOA and organized the new talks in Vienna in April 2021. Still, the Europeans could do much more even during the ongoing talks. They could give the guarantees to stay in the deal if the US should leave it again. It also could put pressure on the US to lift the secondary sanctions. Then Europe could play a more pro-active role and provide Iran incentives to implement a new agreement. The Europeans have not done so. On the one hand, they are still anxious not to spoil the transatlantic relations. On the other hand, it indicates that President Biden does not trust the Europeans.

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